13 Hauntingly Beautiful Cemeteries Alive With History

Whether you’re interested in their architectural significance, attracted by the famous historical figures buried there or are just curious about how cemeteries reflect the local culture and history of a town, city or country — these 13 historical cemeteries around the world offer unique and unlikely experiences to add to your travels.

 

1. Père Lachaise Cemetery | Paris, France

Père Lachaise is the most-visited cemetery in the world and notable for being the first garden cemetery. Napoleon established the cemetery in 1804, but due to its location outside of the city, burials here didn’t become popular until after Moliere’s remains were transferred to Père Lachaise. Today, more than 1 million bodies are buried here. There is a waiting list for the few plots available, and graves can be leased for 30 years. Stroll through this famous cemetery, past simple headstones and towering monuments alike, in search of well-known residents, from Oscar Wilde and Frederic Chopin, to Jim Morrison and Gertrude Stein.

2. Gettysburg National Cemetery | Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

After the three-day Civil War battle in Gettysburg, thousands of bodies were buried in shallow graves. It wasn’t long before rain and wind eroded them, prompting citizens to request the creation of The Soldiers’ National Cemetery. During the dedication ceremony, President Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address in honor of the 3,500 Union soldiers who rest there. Over 2,500 more veterans have joined them. The cemetery was designed by William Saunders in a semi-circle radiating from a grand monument with sections divided by state. Visit this hallowed ground to pay homage to those who gave their lives for freedom and to walk in the footsteps of Lincoln.

3. Colón Cemetery (Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón) | Havana, Cuba

The cholera outbreak in 1868 prompted the planning for this cemetery in the heart of Havana. Built in 1876, Colón Cemetery was named for Christopher Columbus and covers 140 acres — 7.5% of the city! The cemetery is one of the most historically and architecturally significant cemeteries in Latin America. Visit to walk among more than 500 mausoleums, chapels and family vaults representing architectural styles from Neoclassical to Art Nouveau — some pristine, and others neglected by exiled Cuban families. The Central Chapel is modeled after Florence’s Il Duomo. More than 1 million are interned here, from famous politicians, artists, baseball players and presidents.

4. Panteón Antiguo de Xoxocotlán | Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, Mexico

The first church built in the Mexican town of Xoxocotlán in 1555 was replaced by a new chapel in 1657. Today the chapel stands in ruin, surrounded by the city’s first cemetery, Panteón Antiguo (the old cemetery). This graveyard is one of the most important places in Mexico from October 30 through November 2, when locals celebrate Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), honoring the lives of their lost loved ones as the dead awaken to join in the celebration. Thousands gather in the old cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones with marigolds and candles during nightly vigils, singing songs and sipping mezcal.

5. Glasnevin Cemetery | Dublin, Ireland

On the outskirts of Dublin, Glasnevin Cemetery tells tales of Irish history. Until Daniel O’Connell (champion of Catholic rights) pushed for the opening of Glasnevin in 1832, Penal Laws denied Catholics their own cemeteries. The cemetery stretches across 124 acres and serves as the final resting place for such Irish figures as Daniel O’Connell, Éamon de Valera, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins. Compare the simple stones of the 1800s to the elaborate Celtic crosses from the nationalist revival and the 20th-century Italian marble gravestones. And visit the visit the world’s first cemetery museum (an excellent stop for genealogists). If you’re visiting the Irish countryside, stop by Drumcliffe Churchyard in Co. Sligo to pay respects to W.B. Yeats.

6. Arlington National Cemetery | Arlington, Virginia

Civil War generals chose Arlington House Estate for a new soldiers’ cemetery not only for its beautiful location above the Potomac River and D.C., but because it was the home of Robert E. Lee — meaning the General would never be able to return home. This national cemetery serves as the final resting place for 400,000 United States military veterans. Funerals average between 27-30 per day. The 624 acres feature iconic rows of identical headstones — a solemn sight. Visit the tomb of the unknowns, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, the Nurses Memorial, Section 27 (where 3,800 former slaves are buried) and the gravesite of John F. Kennedy.

7. Normandy American Cemetery | Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France

The Normandy American Cemetery was established on June 8, 1944 to memorialize American troops who died in Europe during WWII. It was later moved just east to a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. The cemetery and memorial are managed by the U.S. government, which has a permanent concession on the land. More than 9,000 are interned on the 172 acres, including Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Walk among rows and rows of white marble crosses to pay your respect to the fallen, and visit the memorial at the head of the cemetery, which faces the easternmost point of the United States in Maine.

8. Aoyama Cemetery | Ayoama, Tokyo, Japan

If you’re visiting Tokyo in the spring, take part in Hanami, the Japanese tradition of enjoying blossoming cherry trees, at Aoyama Cemetery. Established in 1874, Aoyama was Japan’s first public cemetery. Many foreigners were buried here during the Meiji period (from 1868-1912), and notable Japanese are also laid to rest, including Hachikō, Japan’s most famous and loyal dog.

If you happen to be traveling anywhere near Wakayama Prefecture, stop by Okunoin, Japan’s largest graveyard. See its uniquely shaped headstones (a spaceship, a cup, an insect) and its famous mausoleum, where it is said that the light of a thousand lanterns has been burning constantly for 1,000 years.

9. Oak Ridge Cemetery | Springfield, IL

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the most-visited cemeteries in the United States — Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. Historians and travelers flock to Springfield each year not because the cemetery itself is particularly significant or beautiful, but because it is host to the tomb of President Abraham Lincoln. It was designed in the Rural Cemetery Landscape Lawn Style, dotted with oak trees and bordered by a low-lying creek. Visit Lincoln, his family, other notable Illinoisans and memorials for the Korean War, WWII, Vietnam and one in honor of African-American history.

10. Mirogoj Cemetery | Zagreb, Croatia

Mirogoj Cemetery is a place of architectural beauty and solemn serenity. Austrian architect Hermann Bollé imagined the cemetery as a “Town of the Dead.” After it was established in 1876, elaborate arcades, pavilion, a morgue and the Church of Christ the King were designed by Bollé and built over the next 50 years. Owned by the city, the cemetery has always allowed members of any religious groups to be buried there. Pay homage to important Croatians, or visit on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) to see Zagreb citizens visiting and decorating family graves.

11. Waverley Cemetery | Sydney , Australia

Spend some free time in Sydney with a trip up to the beautiful and historic Waverley Cemetery, built on top of a cliff overlooking the Tasman Sea in an eastern suburb. Opened in 1877, the cemetery is known for its largely intact Victorian and Edwardian monuments. Walk among the 41 acres of distinctive white Italian Carrara marble monuments as you pay homage to the 100,000 souls laid to rest here, including notable Australians such as poet Henry Lawson and Olympic gold medal swimmer Sarah “Fanny” Durack. Be sure to visit the most famous memorial at Waverly — the memorial to the 1798 Irish Rebellion, where rebellion leader Michael Dwyer lies.

12. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery | Concord, MA

Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding cities are host to countless historic cemeteries, but one of particular significance is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in nearby Concord. Here you can visit the graves of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Nathanial Hawthorne as you walk along “Author’s Ridge.” Emerson himself delivered a dedication speech during the cemetery’s consecration in 1855. Architects Cleveland and Copeland were inspired by Emerson’s Transcendentalism in the cemetery’s design, incorporating natural, garden-like elements. Wander among pine trees, raspberry and goldenrod, or visit in the fall to take in the charming foliage for a solemn and sometimes spooky atmosphere.

13. Cimitirul Vesel (Merry Cemetery) | Săpânța, Romania

In the little Romanian village of Săpânța near the Ukranian border sits one of the most unique cemeteries in the world. Six hundred colorful tombstone crosses are lined in rows featuring paintings describing the dead beneath them and depicting important scenes from their lives, including, sometimes, the way they died. Local sculptor Stan Ioan Pătraş began sculpting tombstone crosses in 1935 and inscribed them with epitaphs and images with a dark sense of humor. Today, the cemetery serves as both cemetery and open-air museum, and you can visit Săpânța’s former home, where his apprentice, Dumitru Pop, continues his work.

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