Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against lists (or more accurately, listicles) at all, as I like reading them (and, as you’ll soon see, writing them) myself. But having looked at many a top ten (or twenty) cemetery list over the past few years, I have a few issues with many of them, especially in terms of how (un)helpful they may be for the cemetery enthusiast. And in looking at lists, and articles about lists, it seems that complaints against them are always written…in another list. So let’s fight fire with fire, shall we?
- Many writers have never been to the cemeteries they write about
I’m not talking about bloggers here, the dedicated taphophiles/cemetery tourists who have their own specific take on cemeteries that they themselves have visited (or are keen to visit). No, I’m talking about writers for magazines and newspapers, who, usually in October, need something to write about the fall/Halloween season, so they fall back on the old standard of doing a top ten or twenty list about cemeteries. But because they themselves have not visited these places, they rely on other top ten or twenty lists to give them ideas. They may mix and match a little, to make their listicle slightly different from everyone else’s, but it’s mostly the same places. Off the top of my head, the following cemeteries seem to always make the lists*:
- Père Lachaise, Paris, France
- Highgate (West or East), London, UK. They often talk about the West cemetery while showing pictures of the East one.
- Merry Cemetery, Maramures, Romania
- Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czechia
- Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
- St. Louis #1, New Orleans, USA
- Okunoin Cemetery, Mt. Koya, Japan
Other cemeteries that will most likely show up are:
- Savannah, Georgia, USA
- Green-Wood Cemetery, New York, USA
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, USA
- Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, Australia
- Any of the other ‘Magnificent 7’ Cemeteries in London, UK
- Mount of Olives, Israel
- Neptune Memorial Park, Florida, USA
- Catacombs, various locations
Of course, all of these cemeteries are well worth visiting, the issue that I have is that these lists are almost always the same. I only need to view a couple lists to know where to go, after that, give me something else, give me something new to consider.
*The wordle image for this post shows the top listed cemeteries out of all the articles (20+) I looked at. The bigger the name, the more often it shows up. The tiniest ones are single mention.
2. The lists often use the same language, i.e. ‘spooky’ or ‘creepy’
Now, I get it. Halloween is approaching and you want to use appropriate key words as click bait for your article, I mean, listicle. The thing is, and I think most of us who spend a significant amount of time in cemeteries know that this is far from the truth. Most cemeteries, especially the ones listed in these articles, are as far from spooky or creepy as you can get. A lot of them are on the tourist trail, listed in guidebooks and on tourist websites. Père Lachaise sees over three million visitors annually. How spooky can a place be when you have groups of tourists passing by you with their own ‘map to the (dead) stars’? To me, a cemetery would only be spooky or creepy if I was stuck in there at night. That said, there are some abandoned (or nearly so) cemeteries that may have a lot of undergrowth, wild animals, broken tombs, and sunken plots. Those definitely would lend themselves more to the ‘creepiness’ factor, but none of those would make any top ten list, anywhere.
Part of the danger of constantly perpetuating the stereotype that cemeteries are creepy is that it may attract the type of visitor who is more interested in visiting these places for the wow factor (very instagram able), rather than because they are genuinely interested in what they’ll see there.
3. The lists are not comparing apples to apples, it’s more like apples to tomatoes
How can you compare the magnificence of the statues you find in Staglieno to the happy wooden markers in Maramures? Or to the somber reality of a military cemetery? You can’t. Just as tomatoes and apples are both technically fruit, they taste very different and are eaten and cooked very differently. So too with cemeteries. War cemeteries have a very different look and feel to monumental garden cemeteries. Jewish/Christian/ Muslim/Buddhist/secular cemeteries are all very different, with additional factors such as country/culture and age adding more contrast. If you are going to make a list of cemeteries, why not compare like with like? A list of monumental cemeteries. Garden cemeteries. Cemeteries with a view. War cemeteries. Unique cemeteries. Churchyard cemeteries. Jewish cemeteries. Island cemeteries. Disaster/disease cemeteries. Burial mounds. Memorials. World Heritage cemeteries. Catacombs and ossuaries. There are so many interesting possibilities out there, yet very few really use them to their advantage.
4. Lists can be regionally lopsided or are so diverse as to be useless
Cemetery lists often fall into one of two categories: they try to show a more worldly view, with each cemetery listed from a different part of the world; or, they try to do so, but have more than half of their list in one country only (usually the U.S.). I’m sorry, but a top ten list that lists the best cemeteries in the world with 5 or more from the States? Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. has plenty of contenders for a “best of” list, but I think it should be its own list, rather than to try to compete with the world stage. A similar issue exists for the worldwide lists. In a top ten there may be 6 from Europe, 2 from the U.S. (usually 2 of the following: Hollywood Forever, St. Louis No. 1, Green-Wood, or Neptune Memorial Reef), one from South America (Recoleta), and one from Australia (Waverley). Not exactly balanced either. Why not do a list that focuses on a particular region or country? That way you’d get a much more balanced list, with maybe a few places that no one has heard of before.
5. Writers are not consistent in their descriptions
A related issue I have about the lists is how uneven the writers are in listing the description of the location. I understand that New York and Hollywood are internationally-known and thus it seems redundant to put USA as the country, but why then list the countries for equally well-known locations, such as London or Buenos Aires? I know that there is more than one London in the world, but that is true of Georgia too, and no list goes out their way to make sure that it is the state, and not the country, that they are talking about.
Similarly, I’ve seen images of the wrong cemetery used for the description provided, or inconsistent written descriptions that fail to give similar types of information for each cemetery listed. Or, as related to issue #2, the title will mention the word spooky or creepy, but then none of the descriptions follow up on that theme in the listicle itself. In fact, what the writer’s may describe is a story of a haunting, or a ghost, or of a particular tomb. Now those individual elements might be creepy or spooky, but to label an entire cemetery that way just because of one story that most people may not be aware of? It’s a bit misleading.
6. The lists tend to promote the same handful of cemeteries
This one is a bit of a double-edged sword. Most of these lists are for people who don’t usually visit cemeteries, so on the one hand, writing and talking about cemeteries may inspire people to get out of their comfort zone and explore them. After all, the average person out there may not have ever considered visiting a cemetery as a tourist, so a list like this could introduce them to new places. On the other hand, it may send the uninformed ‘bad’ tourists*, the ones that take pictures when funerals are taking place, who take selfies and/or show other disrespectful behaviour, to these same places, ruining the experience for others (which may be as simple as increased traffic to a previously quiet place). While I doubt that cemeteries will suddenly be on everyone’s ‘go-to’ list when they travel, the fact that there are more and more articles, more books, and more websites/blogs talking about these places means it is becoming more acceptable, or agreeable for regular people to visit cemeteries.
*I know that ‘bad’ is a loaded word, because sometimes people use it against people when the problem is more of an issue of cultural misunderstanding, rather than explicitly bad behaviour on the part of the tourist. Yet one can not deny the reality that in highly-touristed places in the world, there is a lot of pushback from locals who are tired of seeing this bad behaviour. International travel has become easier and cheaper which often means a lot of people travel to places without doing any basic research about the culture of where they are going or what they are going to see. That, combined with the fact that a lot of people have a “I can do whatever I want” kind of mentality, has meant that there are numerous examples all over the world of people doing incredible stupid or offensive things, that that they would never do back home in their own culture. That’s what I mean by bad tourist. Luckily, I haven’t seen much of this behaviour yet in most of the cemeteries I’ve visited, but as tourism to some of these sites becomes more popular, I fear it’s just a matter of time before it does.
7. The lists rely on the same tropes/images
It’s not only the language (spooky, creepy, haunting), but the images as well. Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia often shows up on these lists, with the beautiful picture of the bird girl surrounded by Spanish moss. It’s a beautiful image, one that was used for both the book and the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The thing is, is that that statue has been removed from that cemetery, and if you want to see it (completely out of context), you’ll have to go elsewhere in the city to do so. In discussions about Highgate West cemetery, images from the East cemetery will be shown, most likely that of Karl Marx’s (and/or possibly Douglas Coupland). Both cemeteries are worth visiting, and are generally considered to be part of the same cemetery. However, for me, I consider them different cemeteries (with different entrance fees), and they are very different experiences, and the monuments in both have very different styles. If you want the old, overgrown, formally the haunt of vampires cemetery, you need to go to the West one, which is only by tour, and much more expensive to visit. Visiting Père Lachaise? It’s all about Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, and many of the celebrities buried there, not about the cemetery itself. Jim Morrison is by far the biggest draw, considering how many articles will feature a picture of his grave that had the bust of Morrison’s head on it, but that was stolen decades ago (and they know it!).
The fact that the same types of images get shown again and again is to me, another clue that most writers of these lists have not been to the cemeteries themselves. If they had, they would probably realise that there is more than one interesting statue to be shown, that would be just as much as a draw that the standard one they chose.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not against these lists at all, in fact, I have been inspired by many. There are lists out there that focus on one particular aspect (US cemeteries, military cemeteries, haunted cemeteries), but for the more general lists, it would be nice if they went beyond the standard, repetitious mentions that seem to form the majority of lists out there.