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Cemeteries: An Underground Highlight of Europe

November 3, 2010

The elevated cemetery of Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Hello Fellow Travellers,

In the spirit of Halloween, I couldn’t resist writing about cemeteries.  Not in the traditionally spooky, mist-shrouded, zombie-infested sense, though, but rather in terms of their significance to burnt-out travellers in Europe.

Cemeteries are to Europe as beer steins and pretzels are to Oktoberfest and football hooligans are to a Manchester United match: they are plentiful, they are visible, and they can be an important part of a traveller’s European experience.  Often traditionally seen in an inimical light, I contrarily consider cemeteries to be a quiet, relaxing respite from tourist lines and town-wandering (well, during the day, at least).

Admittedly, this wasn’t my prevailing opinion while planning my more recent trips to Europe.  To be honest, graveyards were not even on my radar, and who can blame me?  With the possible exception of Napleon’s tomb in Les Invalides, those resting in peace simply aren’t as high on the sightseeing list for visitors to Paris as the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, or Versailles.

However, whether you are bustling about the busy streets of the big cities and towns, or sauntering through the quiet country hamlets, if you are paying attention, you cannot miss the cemeteries of Europe.

Main cemetery outside of town, Cortona, Italy

Literally, you can’t miss them, they’re all over the place.  Unlike the majority of graveyards in North America, which are (relatively) newer, commercially run, and situated outside of the town and city centres, European cemeteries are generally more visible to tourists.  Being typically associated with the Church, you’ll most often find them in the centre of town, in the churchyard (the holiness of the ground being desirable until more recent times).   This means that they are usually smaller, and older.  There are exceptions to this, especially in France and Italy due to Napoleon’s 1804 decree regarding health issues (i.e. plague) posed by cemeteries, which inspired the expulsion of graveyards from town centres.  However, for the most part in Europe, sometimes even in those countries, just head to the church in the centre of town and you’ll find the cemetery.

Cemetery of St. Peter's Church, Salzburg town centre, Austria

Couple their location with the fact that Europe’s population density (134 people per square mile or 52 per square km) is substantially higher than North America’s (32 people per square mile or 12 per square km), and it’s easy to see why European cemeteries are so visible and numerous.  More people plus less space plus smaller cemeteries equals a heck of a lot more of them within walking distance of your hotel.

Ok, so what?  There are lots of small old cemeteries in Europe.  “Why should I bother with them” you ask?  First, they are easily accessible and usually open to the public, and, believe it or not, they can provide a very interesting (and usually free) sightseeing opportunity.

The small, rentable Catholic cemetery of Hallstatt, Austria

The Catholic cemetery of the sleepy Austrian lake country town of Hallstatt is a perfect example.  Hallstatt is an ancient small town.  It was built on a thin strip of usable land, bullied up against a steep mountain by a deep, cold lake.  Space is at a premium, and the cemetery is very small.  The charming rows of handmade wooden and iron tombstones and the lovingly tended graves are unnaturally cramped, illustrating how limited space really is.

However,  it is not until one visits the adjacent bone chapel of St. Michael that one truly understands the brevity of the situation.  For centuries, Austrians have had to rent their exceedingly limited grave space, and once loved ones or estates stop paying the rent, the space opens up, literally.  In the Hallstatt cemetery, until recently the remains of such individuals were actually exhumed and transferred to the bone chapel (dating from the 1100s AD).  The bones were stacked under tables while the skulls were decorated with paint, named for the deceased, dated with the dates of their death, and carefully arranged on the tables.  For a small fee, you can peak in for an eery, yet fascinating experience.

Other cemeteries can be a wonderful place for a break, a picnic, or to just rest and contemplate your trip, or even your life.  While rambling through the Cotswolds, to avoid picnicking in a local pub and purchasing the obligatory pints, we would sometimes stop for a spell in a graveyard.  They often even provide convenient benches.  Careful to respect those resting there permanently (and especially to remove all of our garbage), we could munch on our cold pork pies with a certain relaxed tempo, enjoying the scenery provided by the old church, faded monuments, and ancient trees.

But, those reasons aside, I personally think that the cemeteries’ greatest value rests in their age.  Europe’s history is ancient.  Simply put, people have lived and died there for millennia longer than in North America.  Even though the Christian practice of burial in identified graves is a relatively new one, beginning around 1400 AD and for a while a privilege only afforded to royalty and important Church figures, it was fairly widespread by the 1500s AD.  It is not hard to find graves that are half a millennium old.

The history emanating from these cemeteries is tangible.  It’s real, and waiting to be explored.  Serenaded by sparrows and finches and shaded by centuries-old oak and lime trees, wander down the silent rows of a small church cemetery.  Read the faded inscriptions and realize that these were real people who lived real lives that were certainly very different from your own.

Try to imagine the life of “Thomas J. Wilbur, Town Notary, b. August 3rd, 1758, d. Dec.12th, 1812”, and remember that he actually lived to a healthy old age for that time.  Through the course of his life, he would have seen (or at least heard about) the American Revolution, French Revolution, the battle of Trafalgar, and Napoleon’s fateful march into Russia.  Notice the almost alarming number of children under the age of 10 years buried here, a product of archaic medicine and a poignant fact of life until more recent times.

Ancient, faded tombstones in the church cemetery of the village of Broadwell, Cotswolds, England

One can’t help but appreciate a propinquity to those buried there.  It can be a very humbling experience, as well as one that can inspire a traveller to add a bit of perspective to their own life.  However, personally, my most powerful and profound experiences are courtesy of the tombstones that I can no longer read.  I find a tombstone whose writing has faded over the centuries to the point that I cannot make out the name.  This person lived, died, existed on for a time in the memory of loved ones, and even left a legacy in the form of a tombstone.

However, their tombstone is proof that life is finite and that, eventually, time wins out.  Their attempt to live on after death proved futile in the end.  After two or three centuries the wind and rain has washed their name away, and no more loved ones exist to remember them.  Tombstones like this inspire a realization in me: in the greater scheme of things, life is short and there is no better time then now to live it.  Without exception, it reminds me how lucky I am to be healthy, happy, and enriching my life through travel.

Happy Travels!

The Burnt out Traveller

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