Cemetery tourism: A self-conscious tourism

by Ioanna Paraskevopoulou
by Ioanna Paraskevopoulou

Why do we really visit a cemetery as a tourist?

There are dozens of tourist guides on famous cemeteries in the world. Many articles have been written on how important cemeteries are as cultural sites, while their interpretation is claimed by a plethora of discourses on tourism, from cultural tourism to dark tourism.

However, none of the above tells us

why cemeteries are important to the visitor?

What can they offer that is so special? You can find sculptures and works of art in the museums, read biographies of famous people on the Internet, while if you desire an alternative experience, you can always try skydiving. What is so different then about a walk through a cemetery?

In the most famous historic cemeteries, like Père Lachaise, Highgate and the majority of cemeteries founded in metropolises during the 19th century, the visitor experiences the

trilogy of grandeur: great landscape, great deaths, great monuments.

You will admire the beauty of the landscape; you will be charmed by the inscriptions on the graves of famous personalities; you will be moved by the artistic expression of the sculpted monuments.

When musing on some elevated ground, you will realise that the cemetery is the only place where you can truly enjoy every aspect of the

joining of nature, man, and art.

Leaving behind you the threshold of its magnificent gates, something peculiar will happen to you: you will look back and wonder:

  • ‘Has Balzac ever said anything about death?’
  • ‘What would Marx think of his oversized monument?’
  • ‘Why did the parents of this boy choose to put on his grave the dark Angel of Death and not the bust of their son?’.

That is when you will have experienced, visitor, one of the greatest mysteries of the space for the dead:

the silence that inspires discourse.

It is you yourself who will be the protagonist of the lively dialogue of past and present. You, not the curator of an exhibition, not the interpreter of the inscriptions you read in museums, but you and only you.

So think, where else have you felt like that:

as the only cause of your questions and answers?

In lesser known old cemeteries, in those that are hidden behind their overgrown walls, the visitor has the privilege to discover a secret garden.

That is where you will find abandoned and partially torn down graves, half-erased inscriptions and, if you are lucky enough, you will encounter a strange plant or beast.

You will forget the sprawling cement jungle outside the cemetery walls and, while in this wild garden, you will ask yourself:

‘Is the end of our artificial civilisation the end of life?’.

You will carefully push the cemetery’s wooden door and, while walking towards the main avenue, you will wonder:

‘How on earth did I find myself in this cemetery? I was walking along this avenue and instead of turning right to visit the local museum, as the city guide suggested, I took a wrong turn and found myself on this quiet street, when the rustle from the trees in something that looked like a park to my right drew my attention and led me to its entrance’.

That is the moment when you will realise that cemeteries are not the end of civilisation as we know it, but our departure from it and a portal to another, different civilisation.

Is there another space that belongs to the city and can at the same time be so different from it? And now think, what other kind of exploration has led you to the

discovery of a whole other world?

In modern, massively used cemeteries, where death is a far cry from becoming the memory of bygone ancestors, self-invited visitors experience a fundamental question: what meaning does death have here?

Your attention will be drawn to a small flat plaque with the inscription:

‘John Smith 1960-2017’,

who was born on the same year as you, and you will realise how close you are to death at its passing moment. Afterwards, you will wonder how this person lived his life,

  • ‘What did he do for a living?’,
  • ‘Was he also divorced?’,

and at the same time you will enumerate your common elements,

you will suddenly understand.

You will notice the difference between you two: he is dead and you are looking at his grave. You are unique just because you breathe.

Leaving behind the iron gate of the cemetery, you will remember the imposing marble angels, the worn wooden crosses, the granite tiles in the grass.

‘So that’s what it is all about,’ you will say. It does not matter if the grave is magnificent, in ruins or simplistic, since it serves one and only purpose: to proclaim the uniqueness of the person it commemorates.

From that moment onward, you will never wonder again why you enjoy visits to the cemeteries of the world. You will know that every time you are there, it is you who realises the uniqueness of your existence by embracing the uniqueness of the other.

That is indeed what cemeteries are about:

spaces to celebrate the uniqueness of human existence.

And that is, therefore, the reason why cemetery tourism is above all a self-conscious tourism.

The Association of Significant Cemeteries of Europe invites you to discover your own course in the European Cemeteries Route.