The cemetery is an unusual but universally relevant place to visit

Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery attracts 3.5 million visitors a year, rivalling the popularity of more renowned tourist spots like the London Eye, the Statue of Liberty, and Tokyo Tower.

As unlikely as it may seem, the number of ‘tombstone tourists’ is rising, and more of us are passing through the gates of world-famous cemeteries from Highgate to Hollywood. Why, and how, are these gardens of the dead becoming so popular?

The allure is, of course, not new; taphophiles (‘cemetery lovers’) have been making pilgrimages to iconic graves around the world for centuries. But it’s possible that we’re rediscovering this forgotten pastime thanks, in part, to social media. On any given day, a glance at Instagram might reveal a ‘hidden gem’ of a cemetery, making these sites more accessible and appealing than ever.

Ostentatious Victorian architecture and ornate monuments offer yet another way for us to decorate our feeds, the graves of Karl Marx, Frédéric Chopin, and John Keats interwoven with photos of friends and family members in carefully curated photo albums we share with the world. A glass barrier around Oscar Wilde’s Père Lachaise tomb is testament to the boom in ‘tombstone tourism’. The barrier, built in 2011 to prevent visitors from kissing the monument—a tradition carried out by well-meaning mourners—protects the limestone from lipstick stains, as well as the chemicals required to remove them.

But, if we’re to really understand our fascination with cemeteries, perhaps we must examine our reasons for building them in the first place. Before the construction of these urban necropolises, cities across Europe buried their dead in small parish churchyards, allowing only inches between each body due to the cramped conditions.

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By Andrea Pearce: Culture Columnist

In 19th century London, as the city’s population soared, graves became overcrowded and decaying matter soon found its way into the water supply, causing deadly epidemics throughout the Capital.

To combat this problem, seven ‘garden cemeteries’—affectionately referred to as the ‘Magnificent Seven’—were built between 1833 and 1841. These sprawling burial sites provided a sanitary solution to the problem posed by London’s dead and became Victorian public parks, leisure destinations for the middle and upper classes.

It’s no surprise, then, that we think of cemeteries as places for relaxation as well as remembrance. Many of us consider these urban green spaces oases of calm in otherwise bustling cities, a stance that became more evident as countries around the world entered lockdown earlier this year.

Place of rest…for the living

An increasing number of city dwellers sought refuge in cemeteries and graveyards, finding respite from the madness of the newly minted COVID world among marble headstones and under the ephemeral pink and white bursts of cherry blossom. Aisling O’Leary, writing in the Telegraph about finding solace in Abney Park during lockdown, sums up this strange sense of serenity, ‘Here, six feet under, are the remains of people who somehow managed to live out their trials and tribulations. There’s comfort in that.’

Perhaps, just as people of all faiths are encouraged to find spiritual calm and reflection within city churches, metropolitan cemeteries in the 21st century have taken on a similar role, offering healing and consolation to their visitors, as well as resting places for their residents.