10 refuges of rest | DW Travel | DW | 11.11.2016
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10 refuges of rest

Most cities, as part of their tourist attractions, offer tours of cemeteries. The graves of celebrities or ancient monumental mausoleums tell exciting tales of life and death.

Finding some peace and quiet or just experiencing history, there are many reasons why tourists head for graveyards. Cemeteries as attractions are growing in popularity with tourists.

Ranked among the most popular graveyards are Vienna's central cemetery, Highgate cemetery in London and the world's biggest rural cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf. Here celebrities and famous characters from history have found their final resting place. Ancient architecture attracts visitors from around the world as much as the autumnal melancholy mood. Some cemeteries on their webpage actually claim to be recreational areas.

In the midst of life surrounded by death

Experts say this fascination has become more than a mere tourist fad. Cemeteries have "an undisputed cultural and historical significance," says Oliver Wirthmann, the managing director of the Association of German Burial Culture. He explains that "culture begins where people bury their dead."

This cultural value is also given UNESCO recognition: many cemeteries are World Heritage Sites, like the Swedish woodland cemetery Skogskyrkogarden or the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv in the Ukraine.

German graveyards have also applied for World Heritage listings, like the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee. The Jewish Cemetery in Hamburg Altona might be nominated in 2017.  

Another initiative wants German cemetery culture to be added to the list of immaterial World Heritage. The application to the World Cultural Organization states that cemeteries form national identity.

Added to this, German cemeteries are also sculpture parks according to the Association of Commemoration Culture. Their spokesman Tobias Pehle says that many unique works made of stone or bronze are on a par with sculptures found in museums. But compared to museums, viewing them in cemeteries is always free of charge and open every day of the week.

Spiritual encounters

Whether visiting Mozart at the Saint Marx Cemetery in Vienna or Jim Morrison in Paris' Père Lachaise, the pilgrimage to these celebrities' final resting places helps handling "normal" graves, according to Wirthmann. This way people might redefine the grave of a relative as family meeting place.

For many people, being physically close to the deceased brings with it the hope of being spiritually close to them too, the spokesperson for the Society of German Burial Grounds Wilhelm Brandt said. 

Visiting famous graves is often about getting a sense of history: those visiting the grave of John F. Kennedy will have a similar motivation as those who look at original furniture belonging to the assassinated US President in a museum.  

"In the past, cemeteries were also a reflection of the cities' history," says Brandt, giving them their tourist drawing power.  The Friends of Melaten association in Cologne invites people to discover the cathedral city's Melaten cemetery with their slogan "Cologne's Living History".


Remembering politicians and artists is changing as much as the culture of burial itself, Brandt says. "It's becoming digital - many relatives create memorial pages online where virtual candles can be lit" he explains, adding "that by the same merit there are an increasing number of memorial interactive pages for celebrities."

Pehle observes that there is also a growing trend back to traditional funerals. He says he's realized that for many, ensuring that their departure is celebrated in a dignified manner has become nearly as important as planning a wedding, for example. Graveyards will benefit from this attitude, he believes.    

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