Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
Cemeteries as tourist attractions?
In some cases, yes, and not for morbid fascination either. There are landmarks for the dead that hold artistic and architectural value. As well, you’ll find unique links to history, unusual resting places for prominent people and, of course, more than a few entertaining ghost stories. Here are the five cemeteries I’ve visited in the past two years that rank as attractions by themselves.
Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow — Unbelievable, remarkable and even fun. Those will be among the words you will use to describe your visit to this cemetery whose name translates to “New Maidens.” Part of a convent in the Russian capital, Novodevichy honours its residents with artist-commissioned tombs that reflect the personality of the deceased. Former president Boris Yeltsin is entombed beneath a large sculpture of the Russian flag, which became the nation’s symbol after he oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Near Yeltsin’s grave is an eye-catching monument that marks the resting place of Yuri Nikulin, a comedian no one outside of Russia would have reason to know. Nikulin was beloved in his homeland, however, and his grave features a bronze sculpture of him laughing and with his dog, Barbos, nearby. Landmarks to Nikita Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbachev and Nikolai Gogol are among the other graves that attract visitors. Novodevichy, which dates to 1524, has an entry fee that equates to $5 and is open from 10 am to 6 pm daily (closed on last Monday of each month).
La Recoleta, Buenos Aires — Best known for the shrine for Eva Peron, La Recoleta is captivating for reasons beyond the tomb of the former first lady of Argentina. Tombs tower toward heaven with designs that evoke classical Greek and Renaissance architecture. The cemetery, which dates to 1822, is the final resting place of Argentine presidents, business leaders, sports heroes and even Napoleon’s granddaughter. Amazingly, La Recoleta is the focal point of a downtown neighbourhood that encircles the cemetery with bars, restaurants, music venues and boutique retail stores. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation and hiring a tour guide is recommended because you are not likely to know the historical significance of the people buried in the cemetery.
Père Lachaise, Paris — Being a Doors fan, I brought Jim Morrison a half-bottle of red wine when I was in Paris last year. I should’ve brought something a lot stronger for Oscar Wilde. The Irish playwright’s tomb is one of the most bizarre you will encounter. Erected long after his death, the landmark monument features a flying angel depicted in an image that resembles an Egyptian pharaoh (it’s actually inspired by ancient Assyrian sculpture). Most notably, the tomb is covered in lipstick kisses, left there by admirers over the decades. Last year, the cemetery decided to put a glass wall around the tomb to discourage the lipstick graffiti. Presumably, you must now blow a kiss to the author. The graves of Moliere, Chopin and Edith Piaf are among the other notable attractions in this cemetery that’s lined with more than 5,000 trees and has more than 1 million buried within its walls. The cemetery is open daily until 6 pm and entry is free, although you should book a tour, which costs around 6 euros (about $8) and includes a map of the cemetery.
St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans — The second-most popular tomb in the United States can be found here. Only Elvis Presley’s grave in Memphis, Tennessee sees more visitors than Marie Laveau’s resting place in this cemetery just north of the French Quarter. Fans of the famed voodoo priestess routinely make her an offering (usually a bottle of one spirit or another) and do so after marking “XXX” on her grave and spinning around three times. “There’s nothing to that practice,” says tour guide George Dubaz, suggesting that the routine has nothing to do with voodoo and more likely came from a bored graveyard attendant who wanted to amuse himself by playing some trickery of his own on visitors to the cemetery. The next most-noteworthy grave belongs to someone who is still alive. Two years ago, actor Nicolas Cage built himself a huge white pyramid in the middle of the cemetery. When the time comes, he plans to be buried pharaoh-style — possibly with boxes full of unsold “National Treasure 3” DVDs beside him. In the city’s Treme neighbourhood, the cemetery is open only until 3 pm (noon on Sundays) but there are some night tours for visitors. Contact George Dubaz for details.
Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, New York — A modest little green space in Lower Manhattan, this cemetery is best known for one tremendously significant resident: Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States, the nation’s first secretary of state and a Revolutionary War hero. Hamilton isn’t buried in Arlington National Cemetery or on a palatial estate, however. He was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 and now rests across the street from a discount shoe store. Hamilton’s rise and fall is a significant part of early American history and you will learn more about it with a visit to this historic church. Trinity Church’s St. Paul’s Chapel, located five blocks north of Hamilton’s gravesite, played a significant role in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is home to a memorial honouring the victims and emergency response crews. The chapel survived that catastrophic event and the 1776 fire that swept through the city.
Top Cemeteries in Canada to Visit
Fairview Cemetery, Halifax — There are 121 victims of the Titanic disaster buried in Nova Scotia’s capital.
St. Paul’s Church Cemetery (or Old Burying Ground), Halifax — British general Robert Ross, the man who burned Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, is interred here and his ghost reputedly haunts the graveyard.
Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Montreal — The largest cemetery in Canada and the third-largest in North America, this Montreal attraction features the graves of Montreal Canadiens’ greats Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Doug Harvey, as well as former governor-general Jeanne Sauve, poet Emile Nelligan, and former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa. More than 1 million people have been interred here.
MacLaren Cemetery, Wakefield, Quebec — Former prime minister Lester B. Pearson is buried in this beautiful area of Quebec’s Gatineau region.
Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa — Canada’s national cemetery is, naturally, home to the “Greatest Canadian” — Tommy Douglas, the founder of the nation’s beloved universal health-care system who was buried here in 1986. Douglas earned the distinction as Greatest Canadian in a CBC poll in 2004.
Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston, Ontario — The final resting place of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.
Necropolis Cemetery, Toronto — William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor, and rebellious journalist George Brown are among the prominent people buried in this cemetery near the city’s downtown.
Share your favourite cemetery experience or favourite macabre travel adventure. Email email@example.com with your stories and photos!