A growing number of people are making cemeteries their go-to destination when visiting a new city or country. Some might label this kind of "dark tourism" as pretty morbid, but there is a fascination and wonder surrounding cemeteries that we think should be embraced. Whether you are interested in learning about the architecture of the tombs, their histories, or seeking out the grave site of a famous personality, cemeteries are fascinating places to visit and explore. In fact, cemeteries were once designed for public enjoyment, including family picnics, bird watching, and quiet inward religious contemplation.
While there are some cemeteries that are world renowned (such as Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, or Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn), there are hidden gems around the world that are just as fascinating, even if they are lesser known.
Amazing Cemeteries You've Never Heard Of
1. Cross Bones Graveyard— London, England
Hundreds of years ago, London's first Red Light district was on the South Bank of the River Thames. In the borough known as Southwark, outside official London city limits, taverns, theaters, and brothels were established as forms of entertainment during the Medieval era. Today, the South Bank has a much different reputation, home to office buildings, ritzy bars, and the famous Tate Modern Museum. But looking further back into this neighbourhood's past, we see a much different side of Southwark history. In a small lot at the corner of Redcross Way, rusted iron gates surround the seemingly forgotten and often overlooked Cross Bones Graveyard.
These gates— marked with a plaque honouring "The Outcast Dead"— are covered completely with ribbons, feathers, beads and other tokens commemorating those buried there. Every year since the plaque's placement in 1998, people make a pilgrimage to Cross Bones to re-enact a ritual drama in remembrance of those whose final resting place is in the cemetery— including, most notably, the prostitutes who are said to have been buried there during the Middle Ages.
2. Don-Rak Cemetery— Kanchanaburi, Thailand
The picturesque Don-Rak Cemetery, with its small gravestones and beautiful flowers, conceals a terrible past. Almost 7,000 Prisoners of War (POWs) from World War II are buried in this cemetery located near Bangkok— all victims of a brutal Japanese railroad building project made famous in the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. The conditions on the "Death Railway" (as it was sadly later called) were actually much worse than the movie portrayed— a deadly combination of low supplies and a dangerous jungle environment. More than 70% of the POWs died, mostly from starvation and cholera. Historians calculate that 38 POWs died for every kilometer of railway track laid.
Though the dead were originally buried in makeshift gravesites all along the railway line, the Japanese permitted the POWs to conduct funerals and burials. As a result, there are somewhat formal records of these burials. After the war, the remains were relocated to Don-Rak Cemetery, and the documents detailing the horrible atrocities were discovered. Though a truly saddening addition to this list, Don-Rak is certainly a fascinating cemetery that is often overlooked.
3. Okuno-in Cemetery— Mt. Koya, Japan
Okuno-in Cemetery is located in the picturesque Mount Koya: a sacred village with more than 120 Buddhist temples. The best time to visit this beautiful forest cemetery is at dusk when stone lanterns line the winding paths leading the way through the gravestones and religious statues. The paths all lead to Lantern Hall, where it is said that one lantern has burned continuously for 1,000 years! This cemetery’s most famous resident is Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and one of the most revered religious figures in Japan. Many believe that he is not dead but resting, only to be reborn, and thousands have been buried here with him in hopes of joining him in his rebirth.
The graveyard also contains hundreds of statues of the beloved Japanese Buddhist deity, Jizo, who is represented as a child monk. Jizo is known as the protector of women and children— especially those who have died. In Japanese folklore, Jizo hides the children in his robes to protect them from demons, and guides them to the afterlife. Though this is a touching story, it is eerily saddening to see the Jizo statues wearing children’s clothing, placed there by grieving parents as part of a Buddhist ritual called Mizuko Kuyo.
4. Old Jewish Cemetery— Josefov, Prague, Czech Republic
With the earliest discernable headstone dating back to 1439, the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Josefov district in Prague operated until 1787 (hundreds of years before most of the other cemeteries on this list even opened!). The headstones speak to the cemetery's ancient past. They are jumbled at strange angles from years of shifting earth, and deeply weatherworn and moss-covered. Ropes divide the walkway from the headstones, as it would be next to impossible otherwise navigate the crooked and uneven paths between the stones.
Interestingly, while many Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during the Holocaust, Hitler specifically requested this one remain intact, as he apparently intended to build a museum here after his assumed victory (thanks, Hitler?). This cemetery is also famous in the Czech Republic from having been overseen by a Rabbi who allegedly made a golem (a magical being from Jewish folklore) from clay to protect the city.
5. Merry Cemetery— Săpânța, Maramureş County, Romania
Tucked behind Săpânța's Church of the Assumption, ornately carved oak crosses mark each of this unique countryside cemetery's 900-plus graves. A strangely joyous cemetery, the Merry Cemetery in Romania contains hundreds of wooden headstones brightly painted with scenes from the lives (and sometimes the deaths) of the deceased.
There is little or no weather proofing on the markers, so that the paint fades with the memories of the departed. These markers also usually display poems about their lives! For instance, in an epitaph for a lifelong boozer, a posthumous request is written: “Leave a little wine!” We can definitely get behind that request.
6. La Noria Cemetery— Humberstone, Chile
We saved the creepiest, and most remote cemetery for last. Located in the Northern deserts of Chile, this cemetery lies outside the small abandoned mining town of Humberstone. In the late 1870s, Humberstone was established to mine saltpeter. Abandoned in the 1960s after a severe economic slump, the town has become a UNESCO heritage site. The mines of Humberstone were known for their savage brutality, slave labor and horrible deaths. When workers, including children, died, their bodies were hastily buried and covered with rocks. No wonder there are so many ghosts stories.
Today you can walk the old cemetery and look into any of the opened caskets strewn about. Not much is known about the people who were buried there, and even less is known about why their shallow graves have been disturbed. However someone took the time to unearth many of the graves and pry open their coffins. It may not be a picturesque as the other cemeteries on our list, but La Noria is a good reminder that often times the underprivileged and marginal in society are denied social justice, even in death.