Wait, hold up – visit a cemetery? Why on earth would I want to visit a cemetery for fun – much less on my vacation? A fair question I have to admit; visiting the remains of the departed isn’t something I would ordinarily suggest doing during a vacation. But these are no ordinary cemeteries, each has a story – whether steeped in thousands of years of history, a heartbreaking narrative, are grandiose in nature or all of the above. After all – the Great Pyramids in Egypt are nothing more than giant tombs and the Sphinx was supposed to keep the evil spirits away from the Pharaoh’s tombs. What makes these cemeteries unique is most of what makes them special is above ground for the casual visitor to see – either by necessity (such as being close to sea level) or by religious design.
So, here are my top five cemeteries I’ve experienced in my travels so far in alphabetical order. Click the blue links to see full travel review of that city and click the images to see larger versions of the cemetery.Arlington National Cemetery
Washington, DC USA
While other monuments in the nation’s capital have more history, nothing has more of an emotional effect than Arlington National Cemetery. Service men from all four branches of military are buried in the cemetery in sections devoted to specific wars, e.g., Korean, WWII, etc. Beyond the sea of white tombstones, there are several memorials on the grounds – including John F. Kennedy’s burial site. If visiting the cemetery, try to attend the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns – which takes place every half-hour in the summer and every hour in the winter. Cementerio de Colón
If you haven’t been to an above ground cemetery, Havana’s version compares favorably with every one I’ve seen. Around since the 1870s, Colon sits in the middle of the Vedado neighborhood and contains over 800,000 graves and over 500 major mausoleums/family structures – some spanning 30ft into the air. Along with the tombs, vaults and family structures themselves, the front entrance (which was under construction when I visited) and the main chapel are beautifully sculpted buildings worthy of a photo. The HabanaBusTour bus stops right in front of the cemetery entrance if you don’t want to take a cab. La Recoleta Cemetery
Buenos Aries, Argentina
By far the most extravagant of all the cemeteries on the list. The place is simply marvelous – most every crypt is marble with bronze plaques – some laced in gold. Many of the more famous Argentineans are buried in this cemetery – including Eva Perón and a number of former presidents. While there are a few huge mausoleums/crypts, most of the buildings are situated very close to one another and lined directly across a very narrow, almost claustrophobic walkway. The sheer size of the crypts chews up a good deal of space; so there are less than 5,000 total crypts in the cemetery. Be careful, there was a guy outside supposedly collecting for a charity who made it seem like there was a fee to get into the cemetery – it is free. Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery or St. Louis #3
New Orleans, USA
Because New Orleans is below sea level, burying the dead 6ft below ground is generally not a good idea. To account for this, cemeteries in New Orleans are filled with above ground Crypts – some over twenty feet high. Most of these plots are designated for a family – meaning an entire generation of ‘Jones’ cold be buried in a single large crypt. Architecturally speaking, many of the tombs have a French influence. Although I didn’t get to see one on the day I visited, a New Orleans funeral (particularly a black funeral) is a sight to behold. It’s more like a parade – complete with music, dancing and a conductor than a burial. Valley of the Kings/Queens
The Valley of the Kings is the larger of the two valleys that houses the tombs of former Egyptian Pharaohs (kings). There are over 60 ‘known’ tombs in this valley – many of which have over 20 chambers within a single tomb. The Egyptians believed in reincarnation – thus the Pharaohs were preserved and buried with most of their jewels. To ward off theft of these jewels, some of the chambers were booby trapped (think Indiana Jones). Whether booby trapped or not, the chambers and the tomb room themselves were covered in some of the most beautiful art work of the period. As the name implies, the Valley of the Queens is the smaller valley that includes the tombs of the Queens and the Pharaohs off-spring – the most notable being Queen Nefertiti.
Honorable mention goes to Savannah’s Bonaventure cemetery. The above ground offerings in this costal town’s cemetery do not compare to the other cemeteries on this list – but in terms of shear creepiness, it can’t be beat. Even in broad daylight, the way the trees are situated throughout the cemetery creates an eerie feeling. Throw in the fog that commonly blankets the city and it’s no wonder “Ghosts Tours” in the cemetery are conducted almost every day of the year.
Tips for visiting cemeteries:
- Wear comfortable shoes and long clothing; snakes and insects are fairly common in cemeteries – particularly those near water.
- Be respectful; don’t leave trash anywhere in the cemetery, bring food to feed animals (or yourself) and try to keep the noise to a minimum.
- Don’t touch – don’t move grave stones or family items (flowers, tokens, etc.) for any reason, especially to improve your shot.
- Stay away from funerals in progress. Even if you are viewing the New Orleans version, stay far enough away not to interrupt the proceedings.
I know it sounds a little crazy, but if you expand your horizons and give it a chance, I’m sure you’ll see why these can be one of the best parts of your vacation. Someone once said “how you respect the departed is how you will treat the living”. These five cemeteries are a good indication of how those societies felt and treated their populations.
Which cemeteries have you visited????