I have a weakness for cemeteries. Without being able to say exactly why. I find them fascinating, mildly spooky, yet soothing. And there is always that feeling of reverence for everything being finite.
So wherever I can, I pay a visit to a cemetery. The bigger, the better. But it is also the respective rituals which decide if it is worth a visit. Always surprising to me: Not many people seem to be interested in cemeteries. Often, you find yourself all alone.
These are my favorites so far, the world’s most beautiful cemeteries:
Village Cemetary, Todos Santos, Guatemala
For most of the year, this is just an ordinary cemetery in a mountain village. But on All Saints, it awakens to a different, mysterious life. This Dia de los Muertos which I have already described in the festival legends can easily be spent entirely on and next to the cemetery.
Outside the compound, there are drunk men playing dissonant melodies on out-of-tune marimbas. Next to the tombstones people sacrifice and cry, pray and shout. Here, just like in the rest of the village, many of the inhabitants have already had quite a few drinks. They light firecrackers next to the graves and spend several hours with their deceased family members. While doing all of that, everybody, be it young or old, is dressed in the same costume.
The smells, the sounds, the colors – this place is unique! It is best to arrive a few days before. That way, you also get to witness the insane horse race which is taking place just before the Day of the Dead. Probably the date has been chosen wisely, as there are often participants dying in the contest and then carried straight to the cemetery where the celebrations take place the day after.
Various cemeteries, New Orleans, USA
USA’s deep South has a different approach towards death from the rest of the mainly Christian country. And this is because the slaves imported before the Civil War brought their own rituals and convictions back then, which precipitated throughout the whole Caribbean. Voodoo has been mixed into catholic rites. I could sense that strongly during my road trip.
Besides, in New Orleans people are not buried underneath the ground due to fear of epidemics, caused by the wet soil. Instead, people build compounds with little mausoleums, the so-called Cities of the Dead.
It is particularly interesting here to watch a funeral procession from afar. Because these are traditionally accompanied by Marching Bands, famous for making Mardi Gras so special. On the way to the grave they play sad music, on the way back cheerful tunes to help the people get back into normal life.
If you like it really special, you should visit the cemetery where voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is buried, and where Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda went wild on acid: St. Louis Cemetary No. 1.
Cementerio Cristobal Colon, Havana, Cuba
Havana is not a very busy city to begin with. But on this cemetery you can find an incredible quietness. The trick at the gate: Tell them you are a student, then the entrance is free.
Around one million people have been buried here. That’s quite a lot. Already the entrance gate is very impressive. Also worth seeing: The mausoleum for the firefighters who lost their lives in a mass fire in 1890. But apart from the sights it can be great to simply roam around between the graves and the palm trees.
If you are lucky and one of the self-proclaimed guides approaches you, book him! It helps to agree on a price beforehand. You can still change this amount with a tip if you enjoy his services. These guides will take you to the big sights, but also to the small and hidden treasures, like graves of musicians and writers.
Without one of them you will never learn about all the legends like the one of the dog which lay down in front its lordling’s grave for several days, until it finally also died.
Cementiri de Montjuic, Barcelona, Spanien
There is a tradition in Southern Europe of burying the dead above the ground. But nowhere have I seen it as impressively as in Barcelona. The quite big cemetery was established in the late 19th century when the population of the Catalan city exploded.
It was designed with walls and connecting paths so it would fit into the cliffy area, resulting in its very own specific charme. The walls seem virtually endless and are packed with compartments for the urns.
It is very interesting to take a closer look at the compartments with all the faded photos and inscriptions, and imagine the respective family history. There are cats dozing in the sun between the walls.
It is best to enter the cemetery from the entrance at the bottom of Montjuic hill. The Olympic Park is right there, too, and well worth a visit. Then you can slowly make your way to the top of the hill. Once you arrive there, you have an amazing view not only of the city, but also of Barcelona’s industrial harbor.
Chinese Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Chinese play a big role in Thailand’s daily life, even the smallest towns have a Chinese community. So it is no surprise that you can also find many Chinese temples and cemeteries here. I was especially fascinated by his one here, when I discovered it in Kanchanaburi, not far from Bangkok.
But as spellbound as I was, it was really hard to find out anything about this place.
I recommend just walking along between the countless, colorful stupas and look at the cemetery from many a perspective. Some of the stupas are equipped with tiny bells on the top which quietly ring in the wind.
Central Cemetery, Vienna, Austria
3 million people are buried here, imagine that number! The cemetery is so gigantic that it has its own bus line. Wide roads go through the compound, the only way to even make it from one side of the 2.5 square kilometers large area to the other. If you pay a fee, you can even take your own car onto the cemetery.
But equally important as its size are the numerous personalities resting here: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Strauss are buried in ostentatious graves. Next to famous actors and writers. And, of course, presidents and war heroes. Not only is there a Jewish and an Islamic area, but you can even find a Buddhist one.
Also impressive: The Russian Orthodox church, the Karl-Borromäus church as well as the presidential crypt.
As my visit has been so long ago, I only took analog pictures back then. And I cannot seem to find these now…
Cementerio General, Antigua, Nicaragua
Colonial Antigua is worth a visit in its own right. But one of the most memorable things for me is the cemetery on the edge of town. Also here, the dead are buried in mausoleums above the ground. These are decorated with wreaths and exotic flowers. The cemetery might seem simple at first sight, but soon you’ll notice all the crucifixes and statues on top of many of the graves.
If you let your eyes wander in that position, all these statues look just beautiful in front of the blue sky and the green vegetation.
Manila North Cemetary, Philippines
This cemetary had been on my list for quite a while already, as it is rather special. People call many of the tombs on this cemetary their homes. Yes, you read that right! They have put furniture in there and, according to what they told me, they quite like it there. They have power and water and the place comes with a quietness that you can’t find often in the hectic capital.
I warmly recommend a guided tour through North Cemetary, the information given is very interesting. For example, head over to red Carabao Hostel right next door where they offer very good tours. And if you want to do something good afterwards, volunteer for one of the organisations taking care of the young inhabitants of the cemetary.
I plan to update this post as I keep on travelling. Feel free to suggest other beautiful cemetaries that I haven’t included yet!
This post is also available in: German