Top 10 Historical Cemeteries

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Cemeteries are interesting.  On the one hand, these grounds are the final resting place for the dead.  Yet, while death may be the primary purpose of these areas, it is the living who find value and significance in them.  Cemeteries have an allure for many, far more than I would have thought prior to doing the research for this article.  For some, these hallow grounds are a place of remembrance and reflection.  For others, the attraction may be the historical implications, or the popularity of those who are buried there.  Whatever the case, many cemeteries around the world have become distinguished over the years.  These hallowed grounds stand timeless, and present their charges with continued dignity and honor for all those who continue to pay homage to their lives.  With this in mind, here are the Top 10 Historical Cemeteries.

10. Valley of Kings (Egypt, est. 1600 BC)

Valley-of-the-Kings

What could be more appropriate than beginning our list with a burial site that is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, from the annals of antiquity?  An initial response to this selection may be thought-invoking, as most will not equate historical tombs with a “cemetery”.  Yet that is exactly what this historic area is – a burial place for the dead – in this case, the royal dead.  Known in its time as (inhale) The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes (phew), the Valley of Kings, located in Egypt, is the final resting place of pharaohs and other powerful persons, dating as far back as 16th century BC.

The area is mostly a desert, and has been subject to the ravages of time (and grave robbers).  As such, many of the harmonizing and tranquil aspects common to most cemeteries won’t be found here, and the scenery is as majestic as only windswept sand and rocks can be.  Yet the weight of history is palatable here.  One can imagine the majesty that this necropolis projected at its zenith. The tombs that have been discovered thus far (63) have been a treasure trove of archaeological and anthropological information, regarding life thousands of years past.  The tombs themselves have preserved not only scientific points of interest, but the culture of a people.  Perhaps its most well-known occupant is King/Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

9. Gettysburg National Cemetery (United States, est. 1872)

gettysburg-cemetery

The historical significance of this cemetery to Americans cannot, and should not, be minimized.  Located at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, this cemetery is dedicated primarily to the fallen soldiers who participated in the 1863 battle that shares the area’s name.  By most historical accounts, this battle was the turning point of the American Civil War, in favor of the North.  There were over 40,000 casualties in this battle, with almost 10,000 soldiers losing their lives.  Many of these soldiers had been buried in shallow graves following the battle, and subsequent foul weather began to expose the bodies, necessitating a permanent grave site.

The layout of the graves is one of the prominent features of this cemetery.  The Soldiers National Monument, a monolithic structure, is situated in the center of the grave site area.  The monument is representative of the Union’s victory, and the courage of the soldiers who fought and died.  The grave sites themselves were placed in concentric circles around and preceding out from the monument (which represents the equality of each grave/soldier).  The graves are further grouped by state from which each soldier served, and one area that is designated for unknown soldiers.  The cemetery is now closed for further burials, though it has expanded since its founding, and there are American soldiers from every major war buried there. There is a prevailing sense of “never again” when one visits this place of final rest.

8. Highgate Cemetery (United Kingdom, est. 1839)

highgate-cemetery

There’s no doubt that Highgate is a cemetery.  Located in London, England, this cemetery has all the earmarks that invoke all those Halloween and thump-in-the-dark tales that spook children (and some adults as well).  Because the area also doubles as a nature reserve, there is a lot of vegetation growth that has encroached on many grave sites and the paths that lead to them.  Tree, bushes and flowers were planted and left to grow unattended. In fact, animals such as foxes roam freely on the cemetery grounds.  Add in the typical gloomy English weather, and you have a recipe for stereotypical cemetery imagery (akin to a haunted forest in all actuality).

The cemetery, which is a popular tourist attraction (and a small fee is charged to get in), is fairly large and divided into two parts, aptly referred to as East and West Cemetery.  The older, West Cemetery, contains an impressive collection of Victorian-styled crypts, mausoleums and tombstones.  Death held an allure for this style of architecture, that is evident when viewing the Gothic statues, tombs and buildings that are scattered throughout the grounds.  There are over 170,000 laid to rest at Highgate – many of whom were prominent English persons, though the most notable occupant is Karl Marx.

7. Zentralfriedhof Cemetery (Austria, est. 1863)

Zentralfriedhof

You wouldn’t have guessed it, but the Zentralfriedhof Cemetery is one the largest cemeteries in Europe (going by the number of interred), and reportedly one of the largest in the world.  There are over 3 million people buried here.  Located in Vienna, Austria, Zentralfriedhof Cemetery covers an area of 2 ½ square kilometers.  The cemetery is actually serviced by its own public bus line, with a number of bus stops within the cemetery.  The cemetery itself is divided up into several sections – mostly along religious preference, reflective of the religious tensions that dogged the establishment of Zentralfriedhof.  There is a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist section, with a Mormon section recently added in 2009.

In addition, there is a military section (laid out with military precision), an anatomy section (where those who donated their bodies to science are laid to rest) and an infant section (for young children, stillborns and infants). With this, there is an eclectic feel to the cemetery, as visitors move from one section to another as each has its own layout and “persona”.  This cemetery is also a popular tourist destination, due in part to the who’s-who of composers that are buried here.  The Ehrengraber (honorary) section contains the graves of Johannes Brahms, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Antonio Salieri, to name a few.  Interestingly enough, this section of the cemetery was erected for the express purpose of being a tourist attraction.

6. Almudena Cemetery (Spain est. 1884)

Cementerio-de-la-Almudena

There are more people buried in Almudena than there are living in the city of Madrid, where it is located.  With an estimated 5 million people interred on the 120 acres of land that the cemetery covers, Almudena is the largest cemetery in Europe by far.  The interesting thing about Almudena is that it has an urban, congested feel to it.  For certain, it’s crowded – both in terms of visitors and those buried there.  With limited space available, the graves are literally crammed together, as grave markers are situated in very close proximity to one another.  On holidays, the number of visitors attempting to see loved ones (or sightseeing) can be problematic, due to these close confines.

The various architectural styles of the grave markers and monuments make for a hodgepodge view though, interestingly enough, many tourists are drawn to this feature.  Nevertheless, the cemetery is prominent in Spain, with a number of noteworthy Spaniards resting here.  This includes singer Lola Flores and renowned writer Benito Perez Galdos.

5. St. Peter’s Basilica (Italy est. 1626)

St-Peters-Basilica

The Papal Basilica of St. Peter has such a rich history and significance (both historical and religious), that volumes of books have been written about it.  The Basilica’s interior is the largest of any Christian church currently standing, and is one of the holiest sites in Christianity.  It architecture has been the subject of much study, as have been some of the artisans who contributed to its majesty (such as Michelangelo).  For these reasons and more, Christians and tourists make pilgrimage to the Basilica to behold this magnificent edifice in person.

What is not as well known is that these premises also serve as the final resting place for some very important religious figures.  An interesting side note is that Vatican City itself is constructed over an area that was once a cemetery.  At any rate, the impetus behind the construction of the Basilica was to mark the final resting place of St. Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus.  It is said that St. Peter’s tomb is located directly under the basilica’s altar.  In addition, there are more than 100 tombs located here – including those of 91 Popes, important religious figures (St. Ignatious of Antioch), and even British royalty (the exiled King James Edward Stuart).

4. Pere Lachaise (France, est. 1804)

pere-lachaise

Located in Paris, France, this cemetery has the distinguishing point of interest of being established by Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon once declared that every French citizen had the right to a burial, regardless of their religion or race.  For this reason, Pere Lachaise is a non-denominational cemetery.  In fact, this was a problem early on, as many Roman Catholics refused to be buried in a cemetery that was not properly blessed by the Church.  As with other cemeteries that were looking to increase its popularity, Pere Lachaise embarked on a marketing scheme to entice new burials, that entailed having the remains of Moliere (famous playwright) and Jean de La Fontaine (famous poet) interred here.

Apparently the idea worked, as Pere Lachaise is one of the most visited cemeteries in the world (with literally hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists each year).  Reportedly, there are over 1 million people buried in Pere Lachaise.  Further, because it is an open cemetery (i.e. still accepting new burials), space is at a premium.  It is not uncommon, for example, for members of the same family to be buried in the same grave or, once a grave lease expires (and not renewed), for a body to be removed to make room for someone new.  As such, the cemetery can seem a bit crowded and packed, much like the Almudena cemetery.  Nevertheless, the cemetery boasts a long list of noteworthy occupants.  In addition to its first two famously interred persons, Oscar Wilde (novelist) and Jim Morrison (singer for The Doors) are also buried here.

3. Mount Moriah Cemetery (United States, est. 1878)

Mount-Moriah-Cemetery

Situated in Deadwood, South Dakota, the location alone should give readers some insight as to the historical significance of this cemetery.  This cemetery has a unique tradition, in which the American flag flies continually over the grounds, as opposed to from sunup to sundown (which necessitated an act of Congress).  The town of Deadwood, where the cemetery is located, is infamous for the exploits of notable figures such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp, who made their rounds (and a bit of gunfighting) in the town.

Today, the cemetery stands as a historic memorial of a turbulent time in American history.  There are almost 4,000 persons buried here (and the cemetery is closed to new applicants seeking plots).  The layout of the cemetery is simple enough, with modest grave markers and the like noting gravesites.  There is a respectful humbleness to this cemetery that hearkens to a simpler time, and belies the violent nature that inundates the town’s historical reputation.  Naturally, it is that same reputation (and the noteworthy persons buried here) that attract the tens of thousands of visitor to the cemetery each year (as many as 100,000).  Western personalities Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock are among those buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

2. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (France, est. 1944)

normandy-american-cemetery

The D-Day invasion of France during World War II was a monumental point in history.  The effort, for Americans, came with a heavy price – about 2,500 soldiers were killed (and approximately 3,000 Allied troops lost their lives).  The Normandy battle was the beginning of the end of Nazi occupation of Europe, and Allied victory over the Axis powers.  The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, located in Normandy, France (and perched on a bluff that overlooks the Omaha beach that was stormed by American troops) honors the American soldiers who fought and died on D-Day, and in other battles throughout the war.

Though the cemetery is located on foreign soil, France has granted the United States a concession for the land.  As such, the American flag flies over this cemetery, and it is administered and funded by the American government.  There are 9,387 service men buried here – a continued reminder of the price that has to be paid when soldiers take to the field in defense of their nation.  White crosses and Stars of David, laid out in military precision, mark the grave of each fallen soldier.  A memorial is situated at a prominent position overlooking the rows of graves.  A colonnaded structure, built in a semi-circle, features a 22-foot statue aptly named “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves”.  This cemetery is a rousing remembrance of the price of freedom.  There are three Medal of Honor winners buried here, including Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (President Roosevelt’s son).

1. Arlington National Cemetery (United States, est. 1864)

arlington-national-cemetery

Located in Arlington, Virginia, this is another cemetery that has roots that date back to the American Civil War.  It sits on land that formerly belonged to the family of Mary Anna Lee (General Robert E. Lee’s wife).  This cemetery inters military casualties and veterans of America’s armed conflicts since the Civil War.  As with any military cemetery, the grave stones – mostly identical to one another except the inscription and accompanying faith symbol – are arranged in neat rows on immaculately manicured lawns.  A moving tradition at the cemetery features an American flag being placed on every gravestone on Memorial Day.

The cemetery also features the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), that is located on a hill that overlooks the Washington D.C. area.  This memorial honors those fallen who have not been identified.  A popular tourist attraction, the Tomb is continually “guarded” by soldiers of the U.S. Army’s “Old Guard” (3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment).  In fact, the Tomb is a part of the much larger Memorial Amphitheater, that is used for memorial ceremonies and other functions at the cemetery.

The nature of military cemeteries can never be forgotten or minimized.  These are the men and women who served their country and, in many cases, gave their lives so that we may live freely.  These hallowed grounds stand as stark testimony that freedom is by no measure free, and that it has been earned with the blood of many.  This final place of rest deserves the respect of all who visit, and for all us to remember the sacrifices that were made.  The most notable (and most visited) burial site is that of President John F. Kennedy – whose memorial is marked with an “eternal” flame.  Jacqueline Kennedy, two of their children, and his brothers Edward (Ted) and Robert are also buried here.


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17 Comments

  1. Two sites in Hawaii also deserve mention:
    The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – perhaps better known as the Punch Bowl Cemetery – is a beautiful site made famous in the opening scenes of both the original and the remake of the TV series Hawaii 5 – 0, and
    The USS Arizona Memorial, while not a cemetery, is the final resting place for over 1100 sailors killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    • @ Bob R. I lived in Honolulu for 2 years and visited Punchbowl Cemetery on a few occassions. Just a reminder that the famous war correspondent and journalist for WWII, Ernie Pyle is interred there along with Elison Onizuka who was tragically killed in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. Ernie Pyle was caught in a crossfire while reporting and was shot down in 1944.

  2. Enjoyed the top 10 historical cemeteries list – However, the photo you posted for Mount Moriah at Deadwood is actually the gate house of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia PA. It too is very historical. Founded in 1853 and covering nearly 400 rolling acres, it is the final resting place of thousands of Veterans from the Revolution through the Persian Gulf War, primarily in two military sections. While the records are sketchy, it is estimated that 100,000 persons (+/-) are interred here. As is the case with many of America’s old and storied cemeteries, she has fallen on hard times. Today a volunteer group, The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery Inc., works diligently throughout the year to preserve and restore the grounds. Look for them on Facebook for more information and histroy.

    • @ LizardKing. I visited Pere La Chaise in Paris back in 1988 as I vacationed in Paris for two weeks. My first goal when I got there ? Going to that cemetery and seeing Jim’s Grave. It had a very unusual aura about it with people standing around and holding vigil, drinking, smoking clove cigarettes and the problem was the graffiti on the other graves pointing to his grave. For example “The Lizard King Is Here” with a sketched arrow pointing to it. I saw it but really wasn’t what I had expected. The high- light for me was seeing Frederic Chopin’s Grave which really took me aback and got a few snapshots of it which I still have. Also Oscar Wilde and Giacomo Rossini, the operatic composer, I visited. Quite an interesting layout of the cemetery with no real alignment with the tombs and graves as at times you would have to climb over some of the gravestones to see what was next.

  3. I have visited 6 out of the 10 cemeteries listed and one that I have not visited is one that I am having second thoughts about, and thats No. 7, The Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, Austria. I am a very big classical music fan and always wanted to go to that cemetery and visit and pay respect for the composers interred there. But when the synopsis said that over 3 Million people are buried there and that its 2 1/2 square kilometers making it one of the largest cemeteries in the world, now I’m having second thoughts. (2 1/2 Square kilometers is 1.55 Square miles as I figured). Hopefully they have groundskeepers to point you in the right direction. I also believe that the 19th century composer Anton Bruckner is buried there

    • @ Lee Standberry. Well, let’s call it being at the right place at the right time and being in the NAVY didn’t hinder my travels, but Pere La Chaise is something to behold. I do have this fascination of visiting the gravesites of historically famous people and it all started out when I was a kid living in the capitol city of New Hampshire, Concord. The 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce is buried about 1/2 mile from where I lived with my parents and Pierce’s wife is buried next to him. Then Arlington, I visited JFK’s grave and from there it just mushroomed. My favorite one ever is one that I mentioned earlier and that is the tomb of Frederic Chopin at Pere La Chaise. I stood there for about 15 minutes just mesmerized by it and of course took pictures of it. But I have visited well over 200 different gravesites of famous people.

  4. Excuse me if my English isn’t very good, but I’d like to say that I like this lists very much, but it annoys me that in most cases the first place is something from the USA, I have nothing against patriotism, but a little impartiality would be nice.

    • Thanks, Thomas. We try, believe it or not. Usually the order isn’t that crucial, we just list 10 items. So don’t feel this list is in worst to best. All the cemeteries are historically relevant.

  5. What you write about Père Lachaise is actually true for most European cemeteries. Burying the dead of one family is very common, in Germany you even see grave markers just reading “Family ….” without any individual names. Also removing the remains from a grave after the lease runs out is common everywhere. In former times the bones were then put into an ossuary, but today they are often just put somewhere else in the graveyard. A friend of mine once found half a skullcap on top of a fresh grave, because the gravediggers messed it up.

  6. Check out this documentary, in the form of a Google Map, that examines the Cities of the Dead. Those catacombs, cemeteries, and necropoleis that represent how mankind showed its respect for its elders. With this interactive map, you can zoom in on the some of the oldest, and some of the largest. Some are fascinating, while others are just plain creepy. Some representing millions of interments in a single location, while others contain only royalty and the elite.

    http://myreadingmapped.blogspot.com/2012/11/cities-of-dead.html

  7. i understand that you try hard to be objective, but making 4 of of the “top ten” historical cemetaries American is pretty obnoxious. thats almost half! there are nearly 200 countries in the world, and 4 of the most important ones are American? its just unreasonable. i can think of dozens from elsewhere that could have been included

  8. Highgate cemetary doesn’t charge a fee to enter, i know this because several members of my family are buried here. There is however a section closed off to the public that is only accessable via a pre-arranged tour. Nonetheless this is a incredible place to visit and covers a vast area making it very easy to get lost in and what with the overgrown plants englulfing 200+ year old stone monuments, can be a pretty chilling place to be…especially after dark.

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