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11 Most beautiful cemeteries in the world

11 Most beautiful cemeteries in the world

Just in time for Halloween, here are 10 of the most hauntingly beautiful cemeteries from around the world 

In her latest book, Cities of the Dead: The World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries, taphophile Yolanda Zappaterra presents a very opinionated guide to some 50 burial sites around the world.  

From Japan and Australia to Ireland and Senegal, she delves into wide-ranging rituals, fashions and customs around death and burial to present an absorbing picture of the after world. Here is a small selection of her favourites from the book.  

Issyk-Kul cemeteries, Kyrgyzstan 

A complex cultural mix of nomadic Central Asian, Islamic and Soviet makes the many cemeteries around the Issyk-Kul lake region of Kyrgyzstan as unique as they are arresting—so much so that one of them, Sary-Kamysh, was voted one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world by National Geographic

Issyk-Kul cemetry

Issyk-Kul cemetries, Kyrgyzstan © Michal Cerny / Alamy Stock Photo

Spindly wire-frame yurt skeletons, brick-built monuments that look like mini-mosques, decorated towers and even onion-domed mausoleums styled on Russian churches offer a fascinating illustration of the region’s mix and heritage. 

Fadiouth Shell Island, Joal-Fadiouth, Mbour, Senegal  

Sitting like a surreal mirage on the Senegalese coastline some 100km south of Dakar lies what must surely be the noisiest cemetery in the world.

Fadiouth Shell Island, Senegal

Fadiouth Shell Island, Senegal © Invictus SARL / Alamy Stock Photo

Respectful silence is impossible as your feet crunch over the ton upon ton of broken clam shells that make up the pretty island of Fadiouth, a traditional estuary fishing village linked to its cemetery via a wooden bridge.  

"Sitting like a surreal mirage on the Senegalese coastline lies what must surely be the noisiest cemetery in the world"

The cemetery is notable for being used by both the predominant Christian population but also a significant Islamic population, including the first missionary who died in Senegal.

Gubbio Cemetery, Mount Ingino, Umbria, Italy

Modern-day cemeteries often focus on the functional, but a visionary town council and architect will sometimes create a cemetery that’s uniquely expressive, as they have here on the outskirts of one of Italy’s most important medieval towns.  

Gubbio

Gubbio Cemetry, Italy 

Influences from the town, such as narrow streets, tall medieval buildings and the famous Palazzo dei Consoli, have led to courtyards connected by monumental blocks and corridors which their architect Dragoni describes as “squares of silence, offering the public an opportunity to pause and reflect”. 

The Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, NSW, Australia  

Perched high on the Bronte cliffs, the 50,000 or so graves looking out over the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean’s Tasman Sea are surely set in one of the most beautiful spots imaginable for an afterlife.

The Waverley Cemetery, Australia

The Waverley Cemetery, Australia © Bjanka Kadic / Alamy Stock Photo

But it’s not just the location that makes Waverley so appealing; the romantic flourishes of 19th-century European cemeteries were instrumental in the design, and the mini Gothic chapels, weeping angels, beatific cherubs, classical columns and mournful figures of death, most created of white marble and cream limestone, create a beautiful aesthetic too. 

Skogskyrkogården Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden 

Over time, all cemeteries form symbiotic relationships between the manmade and natural worlds. But Skogskyrkogården was established with that symbiosis at the core of its being, with the concept and experience of mourning and healing at its heart.

"Over time, all cemeteries form symbiotic relationships between the manmade and natural worlds"

Set amid some 10,000 soaring pines, diminutive graves that are all less than waist height (even Greta Garbo’s, whose simple stone is carved with just her signature) make Skogskyrkogården an intensely spiritual experience. And on All Saints Day, when families bring candles and lanterns, that experience is nothing short of magical.  

Kensal Green Cemetery, London, UK 

When the barrister George Frederick Carden visited Paris’s Père Lachaise in Paris in 1821, he determined to come back to London and set up a similar cemetery. Twelve years later Kensal Green, the first of London’s Magnificent Seven garden-style cemeteries, opened to huge acclaim, with London society in thrall to the Arcadian idyll.  

Kensal Green

Kensal Green, London © Miguel Sobreira / Alamy Stock Photo

Two centuries on, that classical idyll and the thousands of Gothic graves and mausoleums make for an irresistible combination, as seen in the 1973 British horror movie Theatre of Blood. It’s a fine place to go celebrity grave hunting too, but you’ll search in vain for the tombs of Ingrid Bergman, Freddie Mercury or Joe Strummer. While all were cremated here, none, as many people believe, are buried here. 

Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel), Săpânța, Romania 

Most cemeteries are sombre spaces, but the Merry Cemetery is just what its name suggests, with colourful folk art scenes painted onto over 800 bright blue wooden crosses, all bearing unique illustrated stories and poems about the deceased.  

Merry Cemetery

Merry Cemetery, Romania © Adrian-Catalin Lazar / Alamy Stock Photo

They are the work of two local craftsmen, Stan Ioan Pătraş, who carved them from the 1930s until his death in 1977, and his apprentice Dumitru Pop, who is still creating them today. Families give them free reign on how the life of the deceased is represented, though what the angel in red underpants represents is anyone’s guess! 

Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia, USA 

The abundance of life across this most fecund of cemeteries is almost an affront to the dead contained within it—lush greenery and vibrant colours are everywhere you look, from roses and spring azaleas in dazzling colours to live oaks thought to date back 250 years.

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery, USA © Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Bright green moss wraps tree trunks in a soft jewel-like down while silvery grey-white Spanish moss hangs down from branches like so many dense cobwebs to create a wonderfully gothic canopy over the graves below. As if responding to all this excess, the funerary art and sculpture here is some of the most beautiful in the country.  

Père Lachaise, Paris, France 

Père Lachaise is the archetypal Victorian garden cemetery, and with such celebrities as Jim Morrison, Édith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Modigliani, Chopin and Maria Callas buried here, it’s no wonder it’s the most visited cemetery in the world (three million people visit each year).  

Pere Lachaise

Père Lachaise, France © UlyssePixel / Alamy Stock Photo

Thanks to scale—97 sections spread across 106 acres—it never feels crowded. Wandering among the tombs of the million or so bodies believed to have been buried here since it opened in 1804 (not including at least the same number of remains in the columbarium and the Aux Morts ossuary), exploring the wonderful array of funerary styles across the site, is an absolute pleasure. 

Okunoin Cemetery, Mount Koya, Japan 

Nothing prepares you for the sight of the 10,000 lanterns that lie at the heart of Japan’s largest cemetery, even though you’ll have had a chance to acclimatise yourself to its magical, misty mien by walking, if you arrive at it via the traditional entrance of Ichinohashi Bridge, through two kilometres of a sacred and eerie 1,200-year-old mountain forest

Okunoin Cemetery, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Japan © Marcel Gross / Alamy Stock Photo

In it lie the lichen- and moss-covered graves of 200,000 Buddhist monks, feudal lords and military commanders, as well as more than 100 temples and monasteries and that lantern-lit nucleus that is the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi, also known as Kūkai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism.  

"Nothing prepares you for the sight of the 10,000 lanterns that lie at the heart of Japan’s largest cemetery"

And because Okunoin is open 24 hours a day, you can visit it at night, when a monk guide can offer insights into that add extra depth and intensity to the experience. But even better is a visit at dawn, when out of the mountain mist appear the ghostly orange-clad forms of monks coming to leave their food offerings to Kobo Daishi.  

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Est. 1822 

The good, the bad and the wealthy are all buried in Buenos Aires’ famous Recoleta Cemetery, a quintessential necropolis whose planned grid mimics the city beyond, with tree-lined thoroughfares branching out into smaller streets and passageways lined with almost 4,700 vaults. For no one is buried underground at Recoleta, with the notable exception of Eva Perón, or Evita, the “First Lady of Argentina”, who lies deep underground in a heavily fortified crypt. 

Recoleta Cemetery, Argentina

Recoleta Cemetery, Argentina © Chris Howarth / Alamy Stock Photo

The extraordinary mish-mash of architectural styles and elaborate statuary ensure there is always something wonderful to look at, and many of the tombs are still in use and lovingly maintained; others lie derelict and neglected, strewn with broken glass, fading plastic flowers and rubbish, a dusty coffin half visible among the cobwebs.

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