I read a lot of articles and blog posts about cemeteries, a lot of “top 10” and “top 20” (and numbers in between) lists that tend to feature mostly the same cemeteries again and again, and wrote about why I don’t like those types of lists here. One of my complaints for those types of lists is that the cemeteries listed are often very different in nature so putting them all together in the same list is kind of meaningless. One of my arguments was that it’s better to have similar types of cemeteries on the same list, to make them more meaningful. So, to that end, I’ve decided to make my own lists that focus on a particular theme, or type. I’ve decided to start with the type of cemetery that I have been drawn to for as long as I can remember, the monumental cemetery.
What is a monumental cemetery, you ask? For me, it is a cemetery that is known for its funerary art, namely statues and mausoleums. Especially in Europe, these cemeteries featured the work of the prevailing artists and architects of the day. While there are many cemeteries that have statues, I am only considering those that have numerous, unique statues of people or other creatures (dogs, lions, etc), not those that have multiple statues that are clearly copies of one another, or are symbolic, such as urns, wreaths, and broken columns. This is particularly true in Protestant cemeteries, which feature similar statues of angels, cherubs, and Jesus. I’m not saying that these types of statues are not interesting, but multiple copies of the same are definitely not. Nor is the fact that many of these statues have the same passive faces, with little emotion or anything else of interest to draw someone in. Similarly, many Asian cemeteries, if they have statues at all, tend to be of the standard Buddhist pantheon, with very little variation. The only Asian cemetery that I’ve been to that breaks that mold is Okunoin Cemetery, here in Japan, but I wouldn’t consider it a monumental cemetery as such. Finally, the size of the cemetery is not important, although in many cases these cemeteries are quite large.
So, to sum up, I’m mostly considering cemeteries that feature original funerary art, namely statues and mausoleums; that in many cases are done in high quality materials, such as marble and bronze. In addition, although this is not a strict requirement, those that have iconic, unique statues or other monuments are more likely to be rated higher than others. Another consideration is the overall quality of the grounds and buildings (and accessibility). Finally, while I’m assuming that most people reading this are more interested in cemeteries than the average person, I think most, if not all, of these cemeteries would probably be interesting to visit for just about anyone. To make this list somewhat fair and manageable, I’m only going to write about the cemeteries that I have actually been to*, since it’s hard to comment on places that I have yet to visit**. As I’ve been to over 120 cemeteries so far (just for this blog, the number is higher IRL), I think I’ll have a large enough sample to work with.
*Click on the name of each cemetery to read a more detailed post of my experiences in each cemetery.
**While I usually have a good idea what to expect when I visit these cemeteries, sometimes the experience exceeds expectations, but it can also fall below expectations.
12 European Monumental Cemeteries Well-Worth Visiting
- Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa, Italy
This is the granddaddy of all monumental cemeteries. It has many of the world’s most beautiful statues, many that deserve to be in museums to be appreciated by art lovers everywhere, not coated in inches of dust to be appreciated by the few. Staglieno is a huge, sprawling cemetery at the base of a hill, which provides many levels of monuments and creates the feeling of being lost in one of the world’s most beautiful mazes. There are the colonnades that feature many of the cemetery’s most amazing statues, but the grounds themselves also offer many other interesting and stunning statues and mausoleums.
2. Monumental Cemetery of Milan, Italy
Only a couple hours away by train is another stunning Italian cemetery (who am I kidding? – this entire list could just be made up of Italian cemeteries). This was my first Italian monumental cemetery that I visited, and it completely blew me away. As a photographer, I mostly shoot film, and after a full day here (at least 8 hours), I had gone through a third of all the films I had brought with me, meant for five weeks (!) of travel. I knew there would be some outstanding statues here, I was just unprepared for the sheer volume of them. This cemetery is a flat one, easy to get around, but, like Staglieno, the massive monuments, single statues, and other mausoleums are everywhere, both in the main buildings and the outer grounds. If you had to choose between this one and Staglieno, either one would be just as amazing and satisfying to visit.
3. Cementiri de Montjuïc, Barcelona, Spain
Here is a cemetery that never appears on top ‘–‘ lists of the most (insert adjective here) cemeteries and I don’t know why. It is drop-dead gorgeous with one of the most beautiful art collections in the world. It’s in Barcelona, one of the world’s most touristed cities, but unlike its sister cemetery (Pere Lachaise) in its sister city (Paris), it is not easy to get to and sees few tourists of any kind. Although it is on the same mountain that holds multiple tourist sites (like Poble Español), the cemetery is on the opposite side, and requires an infrequent bus, or a long walk through multiple winding roads, to get there. But the reward is worth it. Like the other cemeteries in the top 5 of this list, the minimum amount of time to visit here would be half a day, and that would be rushing. Everything from the smallest wall niches to the statues to the family mausoleums will wow you at every turn. It’s also a cemetery that integrates the local environment into its design. Natural stone benches are everywhere, often in the spaces between tombs, since the mountainside does not allow for the tight grids you see in other cemeteries. Plus, if you make it to the top of the mountain, you’ll get a fantastic view over the port to the Mediterranean Sea beyond.
4. Certosa di Bologna, Bologna, Italy
I went to Bologna mostly for the food (OMG, the best ever), but I was not prepared for how utterly jaw-dropping it’s monumental cemetery was. It was so amazing, rather than do more touristy things in Bologna, I went back here for a second visit the day after my first. If we were judging cemeteries on overall beauty, not just the quality of the monuments, this one would win hands down. It may not have some of the more iconic statues that the ones in Milan and Genoa have, but I blame that solely on the fact that this cemetery is not well-known, and never appears in any best of lists. It’s basically set in what looks like an old Italian villa from the Renaissance, with the blocks of stone in various golden-colour hues. That, with the fact that it had an old, worn down aesthetic (very wabi-sabi) makes it a an incredibly visually-appealing place to visit, cemetery or not.
5.Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris, France
Of the big 4 cemeteries Paris has to offer (Montmartre, Montparnasse, Passy, and Père Lachaise), Montmartre is my favourite. It often gets relegated to third fiddle after Père Lachaise and Montparnasse, but I think that’s an unfair designation. It’s not as large or as popular as the other two, even though the quality of the monuments is just as good as the other two, and has a more relaxed atmosphere due to the fewer number of tourists. It’s more cramped than the others (except for maybe Passy), but that, along with the fact that it is located on a slightly rolling hillside means that there is often interesting plays of light and shadow amongst the statues, which I love as a photographer of cemeteries. Another plus is the sheer number of cats that call this cemetery home.
6. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany
Ohlsdorf is a cemetery well-worth visiting for the statuary art alone, but it’s the sheer size of this place that makes it monumental in scope. This is a garden cemetery in the truest sense of the word, as wandering through here can be a highly rewarding (or possibly frustrating) activity in and of itself. Unlike most cemeteries, even wooded ones, where it is usually easy enough to cast a glance in a particular direction and get a sense of what type of monuments lie there, at Ohlsdorf it is all but impossible. Nearly all the grave sites are surrounded by tall hedges/bushes, which hide all but the tallest statues. As a result, it’s really difficult to know what lies ahead of you, or even beside you, until you stand directly in front of it. If you are willing to take the time to explore, it’s really fun, almost like wandering in a maze. If you are in a bit of a rush, this probably isn’t the place for you.
7. Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, France
When Napoleon decreed that there would be no more burials within city limits, it had long-reaching effects around Europe and across the pond. Of course it was Père Lachaise that set the standard for what a large public garden cemetery could be. This is one of, if not the most, touristed cemetery in the world. Officially known as Paris’ Eastern Cemetery, its main draw is for the numerous famous residents laid to rest there – everyone from Jim Morrison, to Edith Piaf to Oscar Wilde. However, for me it’s not who is buried there, but rather the sheer volume of the grounds and monuments that attracts me to this place. I’ve visited this cemetery more than any other and I always find something new every time I go. Despite its popularity, it remains a fairly quiet and scenic place to visit, especially the further away you get from the celebrity graves. This was the first monumental cemetery I had ever visited, and it’s definitely worthy to be on any “top” list.
8. Highgate West Cemetery, London, UK
If you’ve ever read a book that takes place in and around an old cemetery, it was, in all likelihood, based on Highgate. Highgate often stands in for an overgrown, forgotten old cemetery that is both slightly creepy while keeping the aura of old, faded magnificence. Although this is not my favourite of the ‘ Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries that London is known for, it is what I would consider to be the most ‘monumental.’ Just terms of pure wow factor, this cemetery wins hands down. The one-upsmanship that occurred here has resulted in a stunning array of funerary monuments that are difficult to forget. The fact too, that it features a rich variety of different styles in a relatively small area, is definite plus. Highgate is a hill that overlooks the city of London, so this is one cemetery that also gets high points for its views. The only real negative to this place is that you are limited to visiting it on a tour, which is never long enough, and always features the same sites. I understand why they do so, given the history of this place, but it would be nice if they offered alternative tours for repeat visitors, or those that want a slightly different experience.
*I know there are more well-known and famous statues, tombs, and mausoleums from this cemetery, unfortunately I was having issues with my phone when I was there, so have very few images to choose from to really highlight how great this place is.
9. Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia
This is an old cemetery with its fair share of famous residents (for example, Boris Yeltsin) but what I really liked about this cemetery is that there is still a vibrant monument culture here, and the newer statues and monuments fit right in with the much older ones. Unlike most other cemeteries I’ve visited, this one is almost purely secular in nature, with very few religious statues or symbols, save in the oldest section. Instead of grieving women, you’ll find generals and other high-ranking men in all their uniform and medal glory. Instead of angels you’ll find fallen soldiers. Instead of urns and broken pillars you’ll find cannons and airplanes. While cemeteries often appear to be the provenance of women, this one is very male-dominated. The few women that do appear here are older, and tend to be busts or statues of the deceased, not of grieving family members or angels. The quality of the statues is as good as any other on this list, but it’s the differences from the others that make it a fascinating place to visit, and my favourite of any I visited while in Russia.
10. Laeken Cemetery, Brussels, Belgium
Laeken cemetery is one that only rarely shows up in best of lists, but it was near the top of my bucket list until I finally had the chance to visit it earlier this year. Where else could see a bronze statue of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, cast from the original mould? This is an old cemetery that has a beautiful collection of statues to view and contemplate. Like many of the other cemeteries on this list, many of the statues here are carved from marble and are quite original, and/or echo themes seen in other cemeteries. The statue of the fallen soldier here reminds me of the one of Victor Noir in Père Lachaise, meant to represent the moment of his death after being shot in a duel. This is an easy cemetery to walk around in, and there are plenty of interesting statues (with a fairly large number of them draped over the graves in some way) and small family mausoleums to appreciate. If you have time, the adjoining church has a well-known crypt, where members of the royal family are buried.
11. Zentralfriedhof, Vienna, Austria
The second largest cemetery in Europe (after Ohlsdorf), and it’s a stunner. Beautiful statues greet you just past the entrance, and there are are plenty more to see as you walk up the main the road from the gate. It was opened in 1870 but was not very popular since it was so far out from the centre of Vienna. So just like Père Lachaise reinterred some famous residents to make it more attractive to everyone, so did Zentralfriedhof. Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Strauss, and many other notable musicians and artists are all buried here. Most of these notable monuments are clustered quite close to each other, and the cemetery becomes more modern, and more modest, the further out you go from the centre.
12. Melaten Cemetery, Cologne, Germany
Melaten Cemetery is another great cemetery that rarely, if ever makes any list of must-see cemeteries. While there are a lot of interesting things to see and do in Cologne it’s well worth making a detour to visit it. It does appear to be more well-known locally, as there were multiple tours going on here when I visited, and plenty of other visitors. In one section of the cemetery I came across several groups picnicking at what I assume was a loved-one’s gravesite, it was nice to see the cemetery being used the way it was in the past. This is an easy cemetery to get around as it is quite flat, but the large towering trees here add a kind of majesty that you don’t often get in similar cemeteries. Most of the more iconic statues are located on the main strip in the middle of the cemetery, although there are worthwhile monuments throughout the grounds.
This list is far from exhaustive, but I think 12 is a good place to start. This ranking is purely subjective, I’ve moved the cemeteries around so many times that it really doesn’t matter where they fall in the rankings. Needless to say, they are all well worth visiting, for those who love cemeteries (and probably even for those who never think about them). There are so many more to talk about, but that’s for another post.
P.S. Here are some other contenders for an upcoming list (to be visited, soon, I hope)
- Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest, Hungary
- Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, USA
- Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
- Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
- South Street Cemetery, Kolkata, India
- La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina
- St. Louis No. 1, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
- Monumental Cemetery of Bonaria, Sardinia, Italy
- Campo Verano, Rome, Italy
- First Cemetery of Athens, Greece