Some travelers make a point of visiting famous gravestones; others find the idea macabre. For me, cemeteries offer a fascinating glimpse of the way cities live — and a precious respite from their busy streets.

By Jim Lewis
October 26, 2019
The Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Bruno De Hogues/Getty Images

Because I was the youngest child in a large, fractious family, I spent many of my formative years in search of solitude and silence. When I was eight, we moved from New Jersey to London, and since it was still the era of just-be-home-by-dinner, my parents would allow me to take off to a nearby playground after school. Once safely out of sight, I would hurry past the swing sets to my real destination — a small cemetery next to St. John's Wood Church. There I would sit and read for a few hours, absolutely happy and absolutely alone.

I've loved cemeteries ever since, and when I travel, I try to find one in whatever city I visit. Many people do, of course, but I don't go for the usual reason: to see the final resting place of somebody well-known. I prefer abandoned places, filled with what the English poet Thomas Gray referred to as "the short and simple annals of the poor." And more than that, I go for the quiet, the beauty, the sidelong insight into the lives of the city's residents, the space they carve out of their daily lives for the dead, and the memories they hope to leave behind.

Almost every major city has one major cemetery, prominent or hidden — Highgate in London, Père Lachaise in Paris—though New York City, curiously, does not. Manhattan has a few small graveyards, but none to spend an afternoon in, and the vast burying grounds of Brooklyn and Queens remain fairly anonymous.

I've visited burial grounds both modest and magnificent, strange and familiar: dusty catacombs in Naples and decaying mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico; tiny graveyards on the Nebraska plains, holding westbound settlers who perished along the way, their final resting place marked with hastily erected wrought-iron crosses; and the American Cemetery in Normandy, where I once happened upon the marker of a World War II soldier with the same name as me.

Havana’s Colón Cemetery.
Michael Marquand/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

I locate graveyards before I set off, mark them on my maps, admire them at my leisure. The Colón Cemetery in Havana, for example, has dense rows of elaborate and well-maintained mausoleums interspersed with neglected ruins. With its sections laid out like city blocks, each ward stratified by occupation, class, age, and so on, the Colón is oddly inimical to modern Cuban society. It's anything but egalitarian, but it's still much-loved.

On the east side of Cairo is a vast cemetery that has been there since the seventh century. Ask a cabdriver to take you to the City of the Dead, and he'll dart through traffic to an unexpectedly quiet neighborhood, made quieter still by the pitiless heat, and drop you solemnly at the gates. Inside, you'll find not just mile upon mile of tombs and monuments but as many as half a million Cairenes, very much alive, who have taken up residence inside the crypts and vaults. Victims of the city's perpetual housing shortage, they occupy the only real estate they can find. In some spots you'll see electricity and water siphoned off from Cairo's grid, dogs roaming and children playing, schools and a post office.

Related: The World's Most Beautiful Cemeteries

Once, while I was on a motorcycle trip from Kathmandu, Nepal, over the Himalayas to Lhasa, I pulled off the road on the Tibetan Plateau, some 18,000 feet above sea level, to visit a sky burial site. Up there, where the ground is too hard to dig a grave and fuel too scarce to burn a body, deceased Buddhists are laid out for carrion birds to consume, a kind of natural recycling process. The ceremony itself is considered too private to allow for onlookers, but the spots where it's performed are easy to find: look for prayer flags flying at the highest spot in the area.

Perhaps the most magnificent I've seen is the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a massive plot of land outside St. Petersburg. During World War II, some 500,000 Soviet citizens were buried there, in mass graves hurriedly dug in an enormous field. They were killed during the Nazi siege of the city, which lasted for 872 days. Today, the cemetery is an immaculately kept place. Unmarked interments are raised a foot or two off the ground, and a garden of rosebushes lies in the middle. Small pieces of mica glitter in the sandy pathways. On the far side of the cemetery stands a monument to Mother Russia, where Chopin's funeral march plays softly from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Other than that, there wasn't a sound, and on the entire 70 acres I saw only two or three visitors aside from myself. But I returned to St. Petersburg having gained a sense of how stoic the city is, and how haunted, even today, when coffee shops line the streets and tourist buses crowd around the museums downtown.

The American Cemetery in Normandy, France.
Camille Moirenc/hemis.fr/Getty Images

Is this morbid, this hobby of mine? It doesn't feel that way to me. On the contrary, I find visiting cemeteries restorative and vivifying, little miracles of landscape design, and sacred not so much because they house the dead as because they provide a rich silence. We travel, at least in part, to lose ourselves, to be spectral, invisible, and anonymous in someone else's hometown. I've never found a better way to feel that than by walking among these memorials to the forgotten, these quiet ghosts, the dead in all their finery.

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