Stressed Out? Try A Walk In A Cemetery

cemeteryCemeteries get a bad rap in the United States. The only time of year we really pay attention to them is Halloween, and then, it’s to equate them with fear or evil. I suppose Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day give cemeteries a little love, but those holidays are more about who’s in the actual graves, and not about the places themselves.

Unlike many of the world’s cultures, which celebrate or dignify death, we avoid it. So it’s no wonder that most Americans find cemeteries creepy. That said, I’ve met a number of people like myself who enjoy exploring cemeteries when they travel. Some enjoy the religious, spiritual, historical, or cultural aspects, others like visiting the gravesites of famous people. Many find wandering through graveyards peaceful and relaxing, a place for quiet contemplation.

The latter is the primary reason I enjoy visiting cemeteries, although I also use them as a way to find out more about the city, village or country I’m visiting. I look at the names on headstones, trying to discern the immigrant origins of the residents, or imagine what circumstances led to the death of, say, so many townsfolk in a given year. I also like looking at surnames, especially in 19th century American cemeteries, because they’re often (forgive me) amusing.

%Gallery-165496%cemetery Boulder, Colorado’s, Columbia Cemetery was established in 1870. It’s filled with pioneers, Union soldiers, miners, even an infamous 19th century “lady of the evening,” and a recently identified Jane Doe from a 1954 murder case. There are also lots of great surnames: Goodnow; Sex; Belcher; Hussie; Slauter, and Liverhaste.

Built on 10.5 acres near Chautauqua Park, and overlooked by the famous Flatirons, the cemetery is a favorite spot for locals to run, walk their dogs (how many other cemeteries have dog waste bags at their gates?), or go for a quiet stroll. I live right up the street, and visit at least once a week, using it as an interesting detour on my walks downtown.

My favorite cemetery of all time is Telluride’s Lone Tree, which I’ve written about previously. Located toward the end of a box canyon with waterfall, it’s not only beautiful, but historically fascinating. The Telluride Historical Museum occasionally offers tours of Lone Tree, but you can just as easily visit yourself.

While I find many small-town graveyards interesting and a good place for a mental time-out, some big-city cemeteries are bona fide tourist attractions, yet remain peaceful oases. I highly recommend Paris’ Pere Lachaise, for its elaborate tombs and grave markers, many of which belong to the likes of Frédéric Chopin, Edith Piaf, and yes, Jim Morrison.
la recoleta
At La Recoleta Cemetery (Cemetario de la Recoleta) in Buenos Aries, you can visit the tomb of Evita Perón, as well as those of many of Argentina’s most famous political and literary figures. It’s worth a visit regardless, for the architecture of the mausoleums, which range from Baroque, Art Noveau and Art Deco to Neo-Gothic.

[Photo credits: fall cemetery, Flickr user JamieSanford; Chiloe, Laurel Miller; La Recoleta, Flickr user pablo/T]

Living In Cairo’s City Of The Dead


Life can be hard in the developing world, as is shown in this video of a poor neighborhood in Cairo done by IRIN Films. The film doesn’t show your typical slum. This is the City of the Dead, a vast necropolis where poor people have moved in and set up homes and shops inside the tombs.

The capital of Egypt is a sprawling metropolis of some 12.5 million people. Actually, nobody is really sure how many people there are. Cairo has been a huge city for many centuries, and so its necropolis is also huge, some four miles long and filled with tightly packed tombs and mausoleums. The dead have been buried here since the 7th century A.D. Most tombs are simple buildings with little inside except a basic stone marker. Thus poor people can move in, put a lock on the door, and have a ready-made home.

Like with Cairo, nobody knows exactly how many people live in the City of the Dead. Some say half a million; some say ten times that number. They scrape out a living working odd jobs in the city or taking care of tombs for more wealthy Egyptians. A lucky few have saved enough money to set up small businesses serving the needs of their neighbors. A whole city of life has sprung up among the bones of the dead.

%Gallery-159771%Many locals say they like the neighborhood. There’s a chronic housing shortage in Cairo and people here can have a much bigger place than they could ever afford in more traditional neighborhoods. Also, they say people here are friendlier. Perhaps the proximity of death makes folks more aware of their behavior, or perhaps they feel they’re all in the same boat and are thus kinder to their neighbors.

There are downsides too. Living in the tombs is illegal, although the government hasn’t done anything about it, and infrastructure is minimal. Still, the people of the City of the Dead have created their own community where most people wouldn’t even consider living.

Several companies in Cairo offer tours of the City of the Dead. This allows the locals to make some money off the curious who come to see life in the tombs.

Check out the gallery for more images of this strange neighborhood.

Archaeologists search for missing medieval king

archaeologists, King Magnus IIIArchaeologists love a good mystery, and some researchers in Sweden have themselves a big one.

Earlier this year a research team opened what they believed to be the tomb of King Magnus Ladulås, who ruled Sweden from 1275-90. Magnus was a popular king with the commoners and earned the nickname “Ladulås”, which means “lock the barn”, for his law giving peasants the right to refuse free food and lodging to traveling aristocracy and clergy.

When the team opened the tomb in Riddarholmen church in Stockholm, they found the remains of nine individuals. The bodies were subjected to carbon 14 dating and the archaeologists discovered they died sometime between 1430 and 1520.

The researchers already knew the tomb was later, built by King Johan III in 1573, and now it appears that Johan chose the wrong spot. Riddarholmen Church is the traditional burial spot for Swedish royalty. One would think they’d be more careful about marking the tombs.

So where is the missing king? The team is applying for permission to dig in another tomb at the same church, which also (supposedly) contains the remains of King Karl Knutsson. Perhaps they’ll find both kings. Or perhaps they’ll find another mystery.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Remembering the fallen

remembering the fallen
Today is Veterans Day, also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day because in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War One ended.

For four years the nations of the world had torn each other apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, the Ottoman Empire was mortally wounded, Germany’s Kaiser’s fell and so did Russia’s Czar. The world changed forever and 20 million people were dead.

There are countless monuments honoring those killed. The most powerful, I think, is this one. It’s called The Grieving Parents and was erected in 1932 by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Kollwitz’s youngest son Peter was killed while serving in the German army. The monument is in the cemetery at Vladslo, Belgium, where he’s buried. The faces of the parents are those of Käthe and her husband. Her husband looks at Peter’s grave while Käthe bends over in grief. So many young men are buried in this cemetery that Peter’s name shares a tombstone with nineteen others.

Whether you’re on the road or staying at home today, there’s probably a war memorial near you where people are remembering the fallen. Take a moment to visit it, even if it’s for the “other side.” After all this time that doesn’t really matter.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Queens Lane, Oxford: a thousand years of history in a single street

Oxford, Queens Lane, England
Most of the time when we travel (or write about travel) we look at the big picture, yet sometimes a single place can sum up the history and character of a city. Queens Lane in Oxford is one of those places. A quiet backstreet linking the two more popular thoroughfares of High Street and Catte Street, it’s overlooked by most visitors. I use it when walking to work at the Bodleian library as a way to avoid the noise and crush of the crowd.

Entering from High Street, you have The Queen’s College on your left. This college was founded in 1341 and is designed in the Italian style by Hawksmoor, one of England’s greatest architects. Like all Oxford colleges it has its own customs and peculiarities. During Christmastide celebrations a boar’s head is carried from the kitchens to the High Table in the dining hall while the college choir sings an old tune. Legend has it that a student of the college was walking in the forest reading Aristotle when he was attacked by a wild boar. He stuck his book in the boar’s mouth and choked the boar to death!

Walking down Queens Lane you can see a gate to another college, St. Edmund Hall, to your right and the church tower of St. Peter’s-in-the-East ahead. St. Edmund is older than The Queen’s College by a couple of generations but the exact date of its founding is a mystery. Go through to gate to see a couple of quiet, ivy-covered quads. St. Peter’s is worth a visit too. This 12th century Norman church is built atop an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. It now serves as the college library and there’s a display of finds from an archaeological excavation into the Anglo-Saxon foundations.

In the churchyard is the grave of James Sadler, a pioneering balloonist who soared into the air over Oxford in 1784, the first Englishman to try a balloon after it had been invented by the French Montgolfier brothers only the year before. Ballooning was dangerous in those early days. Sadler twice landed in the sea and his own son was killed in a ballooning accident. Another time his balloon hit the ground, dragged him for two miles before he was knocked off, and then sailed away again without him. Amazingly, Sadler lived to 75 and died a natural death.

%Gallery-132119%Continuing along Queens Lane you take a right and the path turns into New College Lane. Yes, I cheated with the title of this post. Sue me. New College doesn’t look like much from here, only a heavy oak door under a medieval vault. Go inside and you’ll see one of the five most beautiful colleges of Oxford. New College Lane is narrow and enclosed with high walls turned black from the acid rain caused by Victorian coal smoke and modern car exhaust. The stone used here is very absorbent and pollution is literally eating away at the university.

Another zigzag takes us within sight of Catte Street, the Bodleian Library, and the crowds. Before plunging into the throng, you’ll see an unassuming little house on the right that was once the home of Sir Edmund Halley, graduate of The Queen’s College and the astronomer who proved comets return regularly. He also loved to party, and went on epic pub crawls with Russian Czar Peter the Great when he visited London. Their landlord complained that they tore all the doors off their hinges and shot holes through all the paintings. The house is now a college residence and is famous for its parties. A little room attached to the roof served as Halley’s observatory and it’s rumored that heavenly bodies can still be seen there on Saturday nights.

If you don’t get invited to a private party in Halley’s old place, you can squeeze down a narrow alley and visit the Turf Tavern, a fine old pub. The oldest part of the building dates to the 17th century but there may have been an alehouse here centuries before that. The management claims that this was where Bill Clinton, then a student at Oxford, “didn’t inhale” marijuana. Yeah, sure you didn’t.

The exit of New College Lane takes you under the Bridge of Sighs, which connects two buildings of Hertford College. It’s said to be an imitation of a bridge in Venice of the same name. One local rumor says that when it was built in 1914, the building on one side still didn’t have plumbing while the other did. Since students weren’t allowed to leave their college after hours and usually had a quick pint or three before being locked in, it was a bad deal to be stuck all night in a building with no toilets. The Bridge of Sighs offered a way for students to hurry to the bathroom in the next building without breaking the rules, thus giving a whole other meaning to its name.