World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries
A self-proclaimed taphophile—someone fascinated by death and cemeteries—Loren Rhoads has documented more than 150 sites for her blog CemeteryTravel.com.
“Visiting cemeteries on vacation helps me understand what the surrounding community values; it makes me feel more connected to people, to the past, and to life itself,” says Rhoads, also the author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
In fact, Rhoads has plenty of company. Search Facebook, and hundreds of cemetery-centric groups or pages pop up. The nonprofit Association for Gravestone Studies has 11 chapters in the U.S., and gravers, who record and photograph headstones, are a growing subculture.
The most haunting cemeteries, however, have an appeal that extends well into the mainstream. (Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, for instance, attracts more than 1.5 million annually.) They lure visitors with a combination of natural beauty, ornate tombstones and crypts, notable residents, vivid history, and even wildlife.
Naturalist John Muir captured the many splendors of Savannah, GA’s Bonaventure Cemetery—long before it was featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. “The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light,” he writes.
You may be similarly moved by a visit to Mount Koya cemetery in Japan, where 10,000 lanterns illuminate the forest setting, or by witnessing Day of the Dead graveside fiestas in Oaxaca, Mexico. And a coastal walk in Sydney will bring you to Waverley Cemetery, whose cliff-side Victorian and Edwardian monuments face out to the ocean, sparkling in Australia’s near-constant sunshine.
Such beautiful burial sites may be the final destination for the deceased, but for those of us still traveling, they can be decidedly uplifting.
Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia
Southern Gothic–style tombstones framed by ferns, flowers, dwarf palmettos, and long moss trees make Bonaventure one of Savannah’s most hauntingly beautiful sights. It was featured on the cover of the best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and was once a plantation. With 100 acres to explore, why not be strategic and join one of the free Bonaventure Historical Society weekend walking tours—or pick up a guidebook at the visitor’s center. For something spookier, turn up at night for the Bonaventure After Hours Tour.
Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, Australia
Under Sydney’s perpetually sunny skies, the sparkling ocean views from the cliffs of Waverley are practically to die for. You’ll find the cemetery along the generally spectacular coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee. It features a large collection of Victorian and Edwardian monuments. Influential Australians like poet Henry Lawson and writer Dorothea Mackellar are buried here, as are 200 veterans—including at least 11 U.S. Civil War soldiers who emigrated after their service.
Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris, France
The self-described world’s most-visited cemetery attracts more than 1.5 annual visitors. Many are here to pay their respects to celebrities as varied as writers Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, musician Jim Morrison of The Doors, composer Chopin, actor Sarah Bernhardt, and singer Edith Piaf. (Pick up a cemetery map at the conservation office.) If you’re not the starstruck type, you can still appreciate the views of Paris, the Haussmannian chambers, and haunting statues and mausoleums.
Highgate Cemetery in London, England
This Victorian-era cemetery draws crowds for its unparalleled views of London, Gothic-style tombs, and natural landscaping. Of the 170,000 people buried here, philosopher Karl Marx is the most famous resident. His grave is on the East side, while the West side is known for architectural features like the Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, and the Terrace Catacomb. Highgate is accessible only by guided tour (and to those above the age of seven). Prebooking for West side tours is required on weekdays; on weekends, it’s first come, first served, with tours every half hour.
Panteón Antiguo outside of Oaxaca, Mexico
Fifteen minutes outside the city of Oaxaca, the cemeteries of Xoxo (pronounced ho-ho) were established by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. They come alive on Halloween night in preparation for Day of the Dead celebrations. To welcome the spirits of lost loved ones believed to return on November 1 and 2, villagers decorate the graves with bright orange cempasuchitl (Mexican marigolds), candles, figurines, and food. Around these festive gravesites, family members gather to wait for the dead while drinking mescal, eating favorite foods of the deceased, and listening to mariachis.
Okunoin Cemetery in Mount Koya, Japan
With 200,000 graves and 100 temples in the forest of Mount Koya, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage spot. And it’s hard not to feel awed by the 10,000 lanterns illuminating the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. The cemetery’s distinctive memorials include monuments to termites killed by pesticide companies and to puffer fish that lost their lives to chefs; a giant coffee cup in honor of a coffee corporation’s employees; and a space rocket for an aerospace company’s employees. These unusual tributes are sincere and lovely, especially in winter, when framed by giant cedar trees, a blanket of snow, and monastic-like silence.
Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, Romania
Brightly colored wooden crosses give this cemetery its merry look, yet the epigraphs reveal a stark dose of the realities of life in the town of Sapanta. Each uses poetry and imagery to relay the deceased’s manner of death—or a dirty secret. (Artist Stan Ioan Pătraş began the tradition in 1935.) One tells of a well-known womanizer: “One more thing I loved very much, To sit at a table in a bar, Next to someone else’s wife.” The town drunk’s grave marker depicts him lifting a bottle to his lips as a black skeleton drags him down by his leg. The residents of this tiny village in Maramureş County clearly take pride in having the last laugh. Since 1977, Dumitu Pop—Pătraş’s apprentice—has carried on the tradition of crafting these sometimes comedic, sometimes cryptic crosses.
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego
Fort Rosecrans has an elegant simplicity and tidy white headstones similar to the look of Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery—but with the added beauty of a waterfront setting overlooking San Diego Bay. Here lie the remains of 112,000 people from military conflicts dating back to the 1800s, including dozens of Medal of Honor recipients, with most grave markers facing the sea. As of May 2014, the last burial space was claimed and the cemetery is no longer accepting interments.
Neptune Memorial Reef in Key Biscayne, Florida
About three miles off Key Biscayne, the world’s largest man-made reef (16 acres) also happens to be the only underwater cemetery. Loved ones’ ashes are cast into concrete sculptures like regal lions or ornate columns and placed in the lost city, 40 feet below the sea. It’s free to visit, although you’ll need a boat for access. Tour operators such as Tarpoon Dive Center offer scuba-diving excursions to visit the artistic interpretation of Plato’s Atlantis.
Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada
“It may sound strange, but with its peaceful atmosphere and views of the city, Mount Royal is one of my favorite places in Montreal to have a picnic,” says Magalie Boutin of Tourisme Québec. Founded in 1852, Mount Royal is one of the oldest rural cemeteries in North America. Its 165 acres are meticulously maintained, with gardens, more than 100 species of trees, and plenty of trails to explore. You can sign up for an organized tour of the ornate Victorian and Gothic tombs, or enlist an audio guide.
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York
Predating Central Park, Green-Wood (est. 1838) was the go-to urban garden for New Yorkers—and second only to Niagara Falls as one of the state’s most-frequented attractions. It remains a pastoral haven, with 478 acres of ponds, rolling hills, and nearly 8,000 trees. It’s also a stop on the Revolutionary War trail, with one of America’s largest collections of 19th- and 20th-century mausoleums and statues. Download the cemetery app for recent photographs of each of 40 stops; a map; audio of songs (including “You Naughty, Naughty Men,” the hit song of The Black Crook American musical); and poems.
Maqbaratol Shoara in Iran
The Tomb of Poets is the final resting place for Iran’s finest creative minds, including mystics, scientists, and scholars. The homage to intellectuals dates way back to 1072, when writer Asadi Tusi—known for penning the modern-day Persian language dictionary—was interred here in the town of Tabriz. Other notable residents include 14th-century poet Homam Tabrizi and, more recently, Shahryar, a beloved Iranian poet who died in 1988. The Mausoleum of Poets’ centerpiece—a striking cenotaph of both postmodernist and Moorish architectural influences—is best viewed from the reflection pool at the south end.
Cemetery of Punta Arenas in Chile
In the most southern tip of Chile, this impressive 10-acre necropolis has avenues lined with two stories’ worth of tombs, stacked on top of each other. The chapels house some of the wealthiest Chilean families of the early 20th century, including early Patagonia pioneer Sara Braun (her palatial mansion is now Hotel Nogueira). Cypress trees shaped like the minions of the Despicable Me animated movie accentuate the serene, otherworldly landscape.
South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, India
With nearly 300 years of tropical fauna overgrowth, this enchanting cemetery, founded in 1767, provides a glimpse into India’s colonial times. A who’s-who of the British raj is buried here in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). And those former colonial rulers clearly wanted to assert themselves even in death, commissioning colossal monuments in both Gothic and Indo-Saracenic style. Look for Major-General Charles Stuart’s magnificent tomb resembling a Hindu temple surrounded by deity stone carvings. He’s mentioned in William Dalrymple’s book White Mughals as one of the only British rulers who embraced Hindu culture.
Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina
You may find yourself humming “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” while visiting Buenos Aires’s prized burial site for well-to-do Porteños. After all, this is where beloved former first lady Eva Peron resides; her black marble crypt is the most famous and is showered with flowers. (Of the 6,400 vaulted tombs, 70 have been deemed historical monuments.) Founded in 1822, Recoleta is filled with over-the-top funerary architecture that reflects a golden era (1880–1930) when Buenos Aires was one of the world’s richest cities.
Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts
As America’s first garden burial plot, Mount Auburn broke with the traditional churchyard model, ushering in a new era of the cemetery as a place to gather for parties, picnics, and sports. Still as bucolic as it was when it was developed in 1832, with ponds, tree-lined lanes, and more than 1,500 plant species, Mount Auburn draws nature lovers, historians, and students from nearby Harvard. Long-term residents include writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, painter Winslow Homer, and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science church. You can tour the 175-acre site by car or on foot, following this online tour on a smartphone.
Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
A full house doesn’t even begin to describe the cramped, six-feet-under resting conditions at this Prague cemetery dating back to the 15th century. To abide by the Jewish prohibition on destroying graves or moving headstones, Prague erected graves on top of existing graves. Of the roughly 12,000 visible headstones—many askew from overcrowding—more than 100,000 bodies are buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Like a necro-lasagna, that means up to 12 layers of graves beneath the soil.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California
Actress Jayne Mansfield, punk-rocker Johnny Ramone, and fashion designer L’Wren Scott (also Mick Jagger’s former girlfriend) are among the heavyweights laid to rest at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, across the street from Paramount Studios. Pick up a free map at the entrance to locate the notables; Warner Brothers voice actor Mel Blanc’s tombstone reads, “That’s all, folks!” In summer, pack a picnic for old movies under the stars, like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Roman Holiday”—projected against a marble mausoleum wall in a grassy, grave-free part of the cemetery.
Milan Monumental Cemetery in Italy
This cemetery resembles an open-air museum—148 years in the making. Milan’s wealthiest families, out to one-up each other with elaborate memorials, enlisted some of Italy’s finest architects. One highlight is the Famedio, a massive marble and stone building at the entrance that contains some of Milan’s most illustrious citizens, including novelist Alessandro Manzoni. But to fully appreciate the breadth of artistry on display throughout the cemetery, join a guided tour.