by Maya Moritz
Featured Image: Grave of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky at the Montmarte Cemetery in Paris, photograph by the author.
Many people rank cemeteries among hospitals and dentists in their list of “places to be avoided.” Graveyards conjure up memories of weeping relatives, lost friends, or eerie reminders of our inevitable end. In fact, we in the developed world are so distanced from death that voluntarily observing graves seems like a grim way to spend an afternoon. Mourning relatives and fresh flowers serve as a dire reminder that, as Virgil wrote,
“Death twitches my ear;
‘Live,’ he says…
I am coming.”
But succumbing to fears about your own mortality may preclude you from enjoying the rich history and natural beauty of many cemeteries. Walks through these sites can be sobering, meditative forays into the not-too-distant past, especially in a country that features what is believed to be the oldest cemetery in the world (Gross Fredenwalde in Gerswalde).
Let me preface this treatise with a reminder that we should all be observing Covid-19 regulations. Travel recommendations should be added to a list of future excursions rather than acted upon this weekend. As Heidelberg is a common commuting zone to Mannheim, some readers may be able to make this visit without breaching guidelines. For the other entries, add ideas to a Google My Maps or a diary list for the post-pandemic world rather than risking your health or the well-being of others
For those within day-trip distance, consider one of the best historical gravesites a bike ride away in Heidelberg. While the romantic city may be most famous for its Alte Brücke and Schloss, you’d be remiss to skip the Bergfriedhof. One of seventeen cemeteries in Heidelberg, this hilly site offers green vistas and ornate graves. Bring proper footwear, as the steep slopes lead you to the graves of several of Heidelberg’s most famed residents like sociologist Max Weber and chemists Robert Bunsen and Carl Bosch.
In Bergfriedhof, some of the most intricate graves belong to doctors and distinguished families with lesser-known names, so meandering among the sections rather than beelining for the most famous residents is a sure way to see beautiful stonework and carvings. For a more heart-rending exploration, visit the Jewish section of the cemetery, where Holocaust-era graves and child memorials give testament to a tragic part of Heidelberg’s history. Another unique aspect of the burial ground is the sheer amount of warning tape over the oldest, most unstable graves, a stereotypically cautious German touch that I have not discovered in my other cemetery visitations.
If that visit encourages you to consider other, more famous boneyards, a train ride of less than two hours can transport you to some of the most renowned resting places in the world. For your burial ground bucket list, you can simply write “Paris” and plan to spend the weekend on this activity alone. If limited on time, scratch off the most eminent graves for your visit with the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. While there, you can join the crowds at the less sumptuous graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. For a more extravagant jaunt, seek out Chopin and Victor Noir’s tombs. The adoration still foisted upon these long-gone visionaries is a testament to the endurance of their legacies.
Since so many famous intellectuals and artists eternally sleep in Paris, perhaps it is best to select stops by which French denizen you’d most like to call on. My favorite graves were in the Cimetière de Montmartre, where I could pay tribute to brave Émile Zola, who stood against anti-Semitism at a time when advocates often stood alone with his 1898 piece “J’Accuse”. At the same cemetery, you can spot Alexandre Dumas, the black French writer whose The Count of Monte Cristo served as a juicy and scandalous tale of revenge and romance. If you’re more interested in discussing existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre and the nature of religion with Samuel Beckett, choose the Cimetière du Montparnasse. Art enthusiasts itching to visit DeBussy and Manet may prefer the Cimetière de Passy. Overall, no cemetery visit in Paris should conclude without gaping at the mammoth mausoleums of the aristocratic families of Paris or accidentally bumping into the tomb of a notable genius. My suggestion is to see them all, Eiffel Tower be damned.
Alternatively, head South for a strange sojourn in Zurich. While my night in Zurich was insufficient to properly explore the cemetery scene, I refuse to stop singing the praises of Friedhof Sihlfeld. While smaller than many other entries in this article, you’ll find more peace in this idyllic spot. From the grand gates to the lush willow trees, wandering through this graveyard is a more relaxed experience compared to Paris. The graves feel almost natural, as if they have been added to what was already a stunning park. Plots are covered in embossed poems and the interred are more diverse, replacing the great French writers with the beloved Swiss working class. In a city known for business and exceedingly expensive beer, a morning stroll through this patch may be the necessary tranquility in your trip.
Of course, an American extolling the virtues of grave visits cannot neglect home. While you may miss some of the pomp and circumstance in some of America’s relatively more modern cemeteries, the colonies have plenty to offer. Read up on the Civil War stories of Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain is interred. In the South, the languid loveliness of Spanish moss in spooky cemeteries is best enjoyed through midnight ghost tours delivered in a thick Southern twang. Notable cities for this type of unnerving expedition include Savannah, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, and Charleston.
The list of amazing cemeteries is too endless and, for the time being, mostly unreachable under current coronavirus restrictions. Though you may not make it to London’s Highgate Cemetery this year, you can take this panegyric as a hearty recommendation for the Heidelberg cemetery and a source for your post-Covid travel itinerary. We can all use a pensive stroll through bucolic grounds during such tempestuous times.