Travelers planning their local itineraries for many foreign cities might at first take the suggestion that they include a visit to a cemetery as the raving of a fool or a ghoul. Why spend precious vacation time in a place that seems counter to the idea of “living it up”?
Yet this is precisely this recommendation I have often made to travelers who have sought my advice on interesting, if uncommon, places in the often frenetic doings of foreign travel, to requiescat in pace (for a while). In my own experience such visitations have frequently proven to be a refreshing, unique, and informative investment of time (and costless in terms of money) in the historical, architectural, and cultural interests that cemeteries offer. Furthermore, these places of final repose can provide a temporary peaceful retreat from the crowds, noise, and delays at the popular tourist venues.
In over two dozen years as a professor-escort for travel-study tours I have guided many of my charges through London’s Highgate, Paris’s Pere Lachaise , and Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, among others, where they have visited the final addresses of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Modigliani, Shelly and many others in the same rank of renown. The monuments, mausoleums, and other funerary architecture they find were often done by masters, and run the gamut of styles, from classical to contemporary, the beautiful to the bizarre. I recall the same delight of discovery that one woman in my group had at finding Brancusi’s exquisite little sculpture, “The Kiss,” in a remote corner of Monteparnasse Cemetery; another was deeply touched by the fresh flowers on the tomb of the star-crossed lovers, Abelard and Heloise, inPere Lachaise .
In London’s Highgate Cemetery I learned from a guide-custodian, Nigel, that, in times past, cemeteries were also used by the living as retreats from cares and concerns of life. In the 19 th century visitors often made a day of re-uniting with their dearly departed, bringing a picnic lunch along with flowers and reading poetry. In 1869 there was a more intimate re-union when the Pre-Raphaelite painter-poet Dante Rossetti exhumed his deceased wife, Elizabeth Siddel from whom he retrieved a book of his romantic poems that he had interred with her. But most inveterate cemetery visitors go for the refreshing repose. Honore Balzac, now a permanent resident there, wrote: “I seldom go out, but when I feel myself flagging I go and cheer myself up in Pere Lachaise .” This was before stoned rock fans flocked to the grave of self-dispatched Jim Morrison in the same cemetery.
Ancient Egyptians are, of course, renowned for their funerary rites and, in the case of their pharaohs, the massiveness of their tombs. But while the plateau at Giza, outside of Cairo, is best known for the cemetery which includes the great pyramids of Kufu, Khafre and Menkaure, the huge necropolis nearby whose tombs once housed the dead has been re-employed as a thriving residence for Cairo’s homeless, and beneath them have been found the cemeteries of the workers who built the pyramids.
As one might expect the main cemetery in Venice is its own island, Isola di San Michele, is mainly for Roman Catholics, but it contains two mini-graveyards for other Christian sects: the Greci or Greek Orthodox cemetery, where Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev are buried; and the Protestant graveyard, whose most famous resident is Ezra Pound. Jews, who were segregated in a ghetto (the word originates from this place) from 1517 to 1757, have their own cemetery on the Lido, Venice’s resort island.
In a seaside cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico a I sat with the wife and children of the deceased man buried in one of its graves. They mourned in silence, since they were full-sized sculpted replicas of the family members, permanently beside their fallen pater familias . But this was only one of numberless unusual funerary monuments, from sculpted weeping wives lying on gravestones, to sculpted joined hands emerging from the graves of a couple of lovers. At a modest cemetery in Puerto Montt, Chile, the graves of children are topped with their caskets enclosed in little houses that contain their favorite toys, school awards and photos. It wasn’t only the Egyptians who “took” their treasured possessions with them.
Rarely is a visit to a cemetery without its moments of poignancy. In a churchyard cemetery in New Zealand I couldn’t help but notice how the tombstones read that so many young people died of drowning down in this part of the world in the 19th century. And in a protestant cemetery in Macao the tombstones attested to the perils of the tropics for westerners in the 19th century; the average age of death for residents of the same period was in their twenties, mostly from diseases and infections that would be treated by over-the-counter prescriptions today.
A few years ago a member of the tour I was escorting asked if it might be possible to locate the grave of her brother when we visited Hong Kong. He had been a member of the Canadian regiment of the Queen’s Rifles in 1941 when the Japanese army took the Crown Colony and was killed in action just a few days after his arrival, at the age of nineteen. Through the British Consulate I was given the name of a former British officer who kept scrupulous records of the military cemeteries on the island and located his grave. It was gratifying to see his sister standing at the neatly kept grave and tombstone of the brother she had last seen sixty years ago, forever at final in pace with rows of his fallen comrades, on a slope overlooking the entrance to Victoria Harbor. It was a peaceful place to rest, and reflect, for a while.
©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.17.2004)