Every major city has some kind of grandiose graveyard. We often stumble upon these “cities of the dead” in our travels — usually a centuries-old swath of walled greenery and limestone on the outskirts of the city, thick leafy trees droop over mismatched rickety headstones and larger-than-life sculptures of angels beckon us in. In the 19th century, before the age of the public park, cemeteries doubled as leisurely places for families to spend the day relaxing and eating in the tranquil landscape.
And while the park has become the de rigueur destination for outdoor leisure, the unlikely allure of the cemetery persists. But graveyard-goers have a different motivation: to dive in to an atmosphere that’s both woebegone and placid, a place that offers a harmonious blend of nature and art, history and horticulture all wrapped up in a contained space. And if that’s not enough, a visit to our experts’ favorite cemeteries ensures a celebrity sighting — in the form of a gravestone, of course — just about every time.
The ultimate cemetery as a tourist destination is Paris’ Pere Lachaise. Most travelers put this 118-acre graveyard on their “must see” itinerary because of its famous inhabitants: Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Alice B. Toklas, Richard Wright, and, of course, Jim Morrison. But for Marilyn Yalom, author of the recently published book “The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds,” the significance of Paris’ landmark graveyard is that it became the 19th-century archetype. “Pere Lachaise is and was the model for all the rural cemeteries built in the United States from 1831 on,” says Yalom. “It was the first big cemetery outside the city walls of Paris. And this was the first time when cemeteries were just making the transition between inner-city cemetery to garden or rural cemetery.”
The first Pere Lachaise-like cemetery in United States — and still today one of the most beautiful — was Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. “I love to walk there,” says Yalom, who notes that Mt. Auburn is one of her favorites among the hundreds she’s visited. “I love to see the trees and so many famous writers and thinkers are buried there.” Buckminster Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and B.F. Skinner are a few of the longtime inhabitants.
For Jon Berendt, author of the best-selling books “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “City of Falling Angels,” cemeteries have a philosophical significance. “Cemeteries are fascinating,” he says. “They’re a living representation of the culture, the history, the passion of the civilization that deposits its dead there; they’re a spiritual link to the past.” For that reason, Berendt says he always stops by the local cemetery when he’s researching a book. “If you really want to get into the history and the people and the famous families, go to the cemetery."
And that’s exactly what he did when he first moved to Venice to pen “City of Falling Angels.” Venice’s main cemetery, San Michele, located on an island a few minutes via vaparetto from Venice, is nicknamed the “isle of the dead.” It’s best appreciated for what’s not there: living bodies. When Saint Mark’s Square fills up with masses of tourists, San Michele is the place for peace and quiet. “It’s mystical and evocative,” says Berendt, mentioning the crammed-together headstones and the tall cypress trees (an obligatory staple for any Italian cemetery). “And you can see the graves of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Joseph Brodsky.”
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague may not boast any names you’ve heard of, but this burial ground from the 15th century is one of most haunting cemeteries on the planet. The 12,000 corpses crammed into a block-long space have forced the tall thin gravestones to slant in all directions. It also happens to be a favorite of award-winning Irish author John Banville, who penned a travel book about the Czech capital, “Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City.” “I suppose a large part of the fascination of the Old Jewish Cemetery,” says Banville, “is how it is wedged into the modern city, a memento mori and a memento vitae. And of course, it is one of the saddest and eeriest urban sites I know.”
Back on American soil, the most famous cemetery in the country is Arlington National Cemetery. Marilyn Yalom says it is not to be missed. “There’s a different reason why someone would come here than, say, Pere Lachaise,” she says of the massive burial ground just outside of Washington, D.C. “People go there to see the grave of John F. Kennedy, but with the graves of some 360,000 veterans, there’s nothing else like it in the United States. You cannot help but have a sense of American history and patriotism.”
Less famous, but just as haunting is New Orleans’ St. Louis #1 Cemetery. Founded in 1789 just outside of the French Quarter, this graveyard might be one of the most evocative in the United States. “Most people are drawn to cemeteries like St. Louis because our burial customs are different from those practiced in other parts of the country,” says Lora Williams, the programs coordinator for the Big Easy-based Save Our Cemeteries. And she’s right: the jumbled above-ground tombs look like little houses, giving new meaning to the term “city of the dead.” The cemetery was made famous when it had appeared in the 1969 Dennis Hopper film “Easy Rider,” and it's been one of the United States’ most iconic and favorite cemeteries every since.