Cemetery Tourism: Symbolic Attractions

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Cemeteries have a strange and macabre attraction for the curious and the morose.  The dark symbolism of granite headstones, monuments, and crypts, viewed by some with sorrow and grief, is often no more than a part of a sightseeing itinerary for the general populace.Â

Pere-LaChaise in Paris, France, a burial place for such notable figures as Maria Callas, Modigliani, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Chopin, and Gertrude Stein, is thought to be the most visited cemetery in the world.  When first established in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the cemetery attracted few funerals and fewer visitors due to its remote location.  In an effort to exploit the potential profit from tourism, marketing strategists moved the remains of Moliere and the legendary lovers Heloise and Abelard to a more accessible site.  As more famous people were interred in Pere-LaChaise, it soon became a much sought-after burial place.  In the rows and divisions of gravesites for the rich and famous, there is only one monument that remains unknown.

Today, tourists come each year to view the grand mausoleums, private chapels, and elaborate tombs of the people who made history.  Crowds of melancholics and incurable romantics, grief seekers, and even so-called professional mourners arrive by the thousands to Pere-LaChaise.  Aside from the ghoulish pleasure they may receive, there is little cause in most cases for quiet reflection and no apparent connection with the dead.  Cemetery tourism, oddly enough, does seem to provide a great deal of satisfaction for many in reliving the excitement and passion of long ago.  Some tourists bring the appropriate flowers, wreaths, or other tributes, while others simply follow tradition, leaving lipstick kisses on the headstone of the infamous and flamboyant Oscar Wilde.  Since the cemetery is quite large, with over 300,000 burial sites and five World War I memorials, navigational maps are provided for tours of the premises.  Visitors and tourists bring lunch on family outings and holiday treks and enjoy the roasted chestnuts and sausages sold just outside the cemetery gates.  At times, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and choir singers perform at open gravesites, adding the customary funeral music to the burial ritual.  Pere La-Chaise is open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  Admission is free.
In a less remarkable, distant corner of Vienna, Austria, lies the tranquil Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless.  The first to be buried here were the bodies of strangers who perished and washed ashore in the floods of the Danube in the mid to late 1800’s.  Most of the 500 victims were so badly decomposed, it was impossible to identify them.  A few simple crosses and broken stones reflect the tragedy and sorrow of accidental death, murder, and unrequited love.  After 1940 when the last funeral was held, few visitors returned to grieve their loss.  The Cemetery of the Nameless has no elaborate headstones, few living flowers, and few words in memoriam.  Candles no longer burn for these ghosts of the past who rest amid the rocks and boulders now covered with brambles and thorns.  No names of famous people can be found, no music can be heard, and no professional speakers orate, and yet, the symbolism of the Cemetery of the Nameless haunts us in its neglect and isolation.  There is no admission charge to this lonely place where grief is far too overwhelming to contemplate.

In the movie Before Sunrise, the two lovers meet on a train to Vienna, a city, according to Freud, that has a peculiar obsession for death and melancholia.  In one night of wandering the streets of the city, they discover life, love, and romance.  Their attraction for each other and eagerness to share the past continues to grow as each carefree hour goes swiftly by.  In their visit to the Cemetery of the Nameless, we sense the longing of a woman to recapture her youth and innocence, as she recalls a similar visit as a child.  The scene of nostalgia and romantic illusion leaves us with a feeling of sadness, as we wonder if love too is subject to time and as unpredictable as life itself.  The cemetery is somehow symbolic of opportunities missed and the reality of knowing that some things are truly lost and forgotten, only to be buried in the memories of yesterday.

It has been said that cemetery tourism for some is an “aphrodisiac for necrophilia,” for others, a temporary feeling of sentimentalism and grief, but for many, it is just another form of entertainment.  Cemetery tourism has become far more than a popular tourist attraction; it is, in reality, an institution.

Sharon L. Slayton

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