By Renée S. Gordon
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.”
Many of the most visited tourist destinations, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Lincoln’s Tomb, are elaborately constructed burial sites. As early as 60,000 B.C. survivors sought to memorialize those who passed on by marking their graves. These early markings were sometimes a mere mound of dirt or a pile of stones to denote the location
In latter day European tradition, people were interred in or near the local churchyard. Christians were generally buried on the east side facing the rising sun so that they would be better positioned to rise on Judgment Day. Heathens and criminals were buried outside of the wall ethnic graves were routinely segregated in the rear or side of the churchyard.
The 19th century heralded the creation of the rural cemetery spurred by the population growth of world’s major cities. They tended to be on elevated plots of land on the periphery of the city and to offer views believed to facilitate contemplation and serenity. Many of these cemeteries have survived and have become international tourist destinations because of the history, the memorial architecture and, most compellingly, for the people and their stories interred within the gates.
I have chosen four of my favorites to share with you. All four offer organized tours, maps and literature. I strongly suggest that you join a tour instead of touring on your own. I once spent two hours searching for a specific tomb that I never successfully located. Be certain to check hours of operation and admission fees in advance.
“And alien tears will fill for him Pity’s long-broken urn, For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” –Oscar Wilde’s Inscription
Pére Lachaise, in Paris, France, is the largest and most famous of the more than twenty cemeteries located there. Champ Evêque was first occupied in 1430 when a rich Parisian built a house atop the hill. The Jesuits purchased the home for use as a hospice in the 1600s and in 1652 Le Père La Chaise, the king’s priest, visited. The 17-acre estate was nationalized during the French Revolution and in May of 1804 the city opened as a cemetery and immediately began reburying people, many famous, from churchyards in Paris.
Pére Lachaise is referred to as the “home of the permanent Parisians.’ It has paths that wind through more than 5,000 trees on 108-acres. There are approximately 70,000 graves, visited by several million people yearly. A few of the renowned individuals buried there include Abelard & Heloise, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Chopin, Colette, Modigliani, Moliere, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.
There are beautiful mausoleums and memorials but the most controversial gravesite in Pére Lachaise, guarded daily by the police, is that of the Door’s Jim Morrison. Morrison died in a Parisian hotel in 1971. He was originally buried in Bagneaux Cemetery but two years later he was reinterred in Pére Lachaise. The gravesite has become a place of pilgrimage. www.pere-lachaise.com
“Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” –John Keats Inscription
In 12 B.C. Caius Cestius, a Roman Magistrate, died and was buried in a remarkable monument on the edge of the city. The pyramid, faced with white marble, stands 118-ft. high and took nearly one year to construct. The structure became part of the Aurelian Wall, built in 271 B.C. as protection against Germanic invaders, and continues to awe modern visitors.
Adjacent to the Piramide di Caio Cestio is Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, site of foreigner’s burials since 1738. More than 4,000 individuals are interred there among the cypress trees, many of them American visitors to the city. Though many of the gravesites belong to noted people its popularity as a tourist site largely rests on the fact that Richard H. Dana, John Keats and Percy Shelly rest there.
Dana, an American lawyer, legislator and anti-slavery activist, gained fame for his novel “Two Years Before the Mast.” He died in 1882. John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. He gained fame after death and is remembered as one of the world’s greatest romantic poets.
Keats’ friend Percy Bysshe Shelley is remembered for both his poetry and his lifestyle. He drowned in 1822 and his body washed up on the beach at Viareggio where his friend Lord Byron cremated him. His ashes were placed in the cemetery but his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, carried his heart on her person. Some sources say the heart was buried with her, others state that it was later buried in the Protestant Cemetery with their son. www.protestantcemetery.it
“No one should come between us. I would pursue you to the death.” –C. Dickens
Most visitors to London would consider Westminster Abbey the place to visit to see the gravesites of the famous. Built in 1065 as a Benedictine monastery church it has been the location of choice for coronations since William the Conqueror in 1066. Eighteen monarchs are entombed there as well as Chaucer, Dickens, Kipling and a host of others. It is a must see but you should not miss an opportunity to tour Highgate Cemetery.
The hill on which the cemetery now sits has been occupied since the 1500s and in the late 17th-century Sir William Ashhurst built an estate. In 1836 a church was erected there and the first burials soon took place. Today the 37-acre Highgate, known as “The Victorian Walhalla,” is divided into two sections, the East (1854) and West (1839). The most renowned occupant is Karl Marx. He is interred in the East Section and a bust tops his memorial.
I find the West Section to be far more interesting. It can’t be toured without a guided tour because it is overgrown, filled with catacombs and Gothic monuments. It is believed to have been the model for Stoker’s cemetery in “Dracula.” There are rumors that real vampires wander there at night and cinema vampires abounded in the 1970s when Hammer Films made a series of Dracula movies there.
Many visitors pause at the gravesite of Elizabeth Siddall who wed the Italian painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1860. She died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862 and Rossetti buried the only manuscript of his poetry in her coffin. In 1879 the popularity of his poetry exceeded that of his paintings and he needed his poems. He disinterred her in the dead of night and removed them. www.highgate-cemetery.org
“God is near, do not fear. Friend, good night.” –“Taps” Major General Daniel Butterfield 1862
Arlington Cemetery, near Washington, DC, is much closer to home but equally storied. In 1862 when congress passed legislation to establish national cemeteries more than 200 were established that year. Arlington National Cemetery was founded in 1864 by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs on land that once belonged to Robert E. Lee. Early burials took place in the rose garden right outside the 1802 mansion so that the Lee’s would never be able to return. Currently, more than 250,000 members of the military reside there and the Meigs family plot is within 300-ft. of the house.
Your visit should begin in the visitor’s center and then, map in hand, proceed to some of the nation’s most visited sites. The Tomb of the Unknowns is situated atop a hill since 1921. It contains bodies of soldiers from WWI, WWII and the Korean Conflict. The Vietnam unknown was buried in 1984 but in 1998 he was identified through DNA and was exhumed. The tomb will remain empty forever.
John F. and Jackie Kennedy and Robert Kennedy are buried a short walk from the mansion. Robert’s grave is marked with, at his request, a wooden cross, John’s with an eternal flame. Ron Brown, Medgar Evers, Matthew Henson, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, Lee Marvin and “Black Jack” Pershing are among the famous whose graves you can visit.
There are numerous African American history links in Arlington and the mansion itself was constructed with slave labor and James Parks who had been enslaved at Arlington dug the first graves. He is buried there. In 1863 Freedman’s Village was established on the grounds for former slaves. A hospital and a school were founded there and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are known to have visited. In December of 1887, the government ordered the Freedmen off the land within 90 days. The nearly 2,000 residents were given $75,000 to divide equally as compensation. All evidence of their presence was removed except their graves. Sections 27 of Arlington houses their nearly 2,000 graves along with those of the US Colored Troops. Section 23 is the site of additional USCT burials. www.arlingtoncemetery.org
Each cemetery has unique stories to tell. As visitors we can learn about life through examining these stories carved in stone. All cities have such cemeteries and Philadelphia has more than its share. Whether you visit a cemetery here or abroad you will be surprised what you can learn. www.findagrave.com
“Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.” –Roman Tombstone
I wish you smooth and peaceful travels!