Cemeteries are not only a window into how different cultures honour the dead, they’re also home to some unsettling myths and legends. Given their role as hosts for the deceased, graveyards across the globe have been associated with all manner of hauntings, horrors and ghostly goings-on.
Whether tourists are paying their respects, investigating creepy folklore or simply glimpsing celebrities’ final resting places, they are increasingly adding a graveyard trek to their holiday itineraries.
From the catacombs of Paris to St Louis Cemetery in the United States, here are 12 unsettling cemeteries to visit around the world.
1. Greyfriars Kirkyard, Scotland
As reputations go, “the most haunted cemetery in the world” sets a harrowing tone. Greyfriars Kirkyard’s ghastly past adds plenty of flesh to the bones. In the 1670s, Lord Advocate to Charles II, George “Bloody” Washington imprisoned 1200 Covenanters on an adjoining field for 4 months, treating them so inhumanely some view it as the first-ever concentration camp.
Bloody Mackenzie was himself buried in Greyfriars’ ‘Black Mausoleum’ which was broken into by a homeless man in 1999. Since then, visitors complain of unexplained physical attacks, some leaving with bruises, scratches, bite marks and even burns. Bloody Mackenzie and his Covenanter enemies have seemingly united in the spirit world to torment the living.
Towards the end of the 1770s, France’s oldest and largest cemetery, Saint Innocents, was becoming overcrowded. In 1780, when heavy rain collapsed the wall of an adjacent building, a practical but macabre solution saw all bodies exhumed and relocated to disused quarry tunnels underground.
The Catacombs contain the remains of over 6 million people. Popular legend intensified in 1793 when hospital doorkeeper Philibert Aspairt died while exploring the tunnels. It took 11 years for his body to be discovered. In the 1990s, catacomb explorers found a video camera containing footage of a man going mad while lost in the tunnels before eventually dropping the camera and making a doomed run into the darkness.
3. Howard Street Cemetery, United States
An unmarked Howard Street Cemetery grave denotes the resting place of Giles Corey, one of five men killed during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. After refusing to speak during his trial, Corey was subjected to ‘peine forte et dure’ which involved a board being placed on his chest with weights added until he was crushed to death.
Corey apparently mocked his executioner by demanding “more weight” and, according to popular myth, even got the last laugh in the afterlife. Folklore suggests a curse Corey placed on the town was responsible for both the 1914 Great Salem Fire, and the unexplained illnesses which prompted Sheriff Robert Cahill’s early retirement. Corey’s ghost is also said to haunt the graveyard.
Once an orchard to a surrounding church in 1822, La Recoleta has grown to the size of a city. Visitors can pay their respects to Eva Perón then acquaint themselves with the legend of Rufina Cambaceres who died in 1902.
The story goes that screams were heard from Cambaceres’ tomb days after her burial. An exhumation revealed scratch marks on the inside of the coffin and on her face, painting a grim picture of a failed escape and a torturous death.
The ghost of former gravedigger David Alleno is also said to jangle keys while perusing the cemetery. 6,000 pristine mausoleums add elegance that neatly offsets the doom and gloom.
5. The Merry Cemetery, Sapanta, Romania
‘Merry’ is very low on the lists of words you would readily associate with a cemetery, and that’s our first hint they do things differently in Sapanta. Here, graves are marked with carved oak crosses, painted blue, and decorated with amusing verses and images commemorating the deceased’s life.
Addictions, mother-in-law jokes, local residents getting hit by lorries – nothing is off the table in this offbeat cemetery that purposefully celebrates life rather than mourning death. Between 1935 and his death in 1977, all carvings, paintings, and inscriptions were the work of Stan Ioan Pătraş. After carving his own cross, he subsequently passed on the work to apprentice Dumitru Pop.
As one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries surrounding London, Highgate helped stop people burying the dead wherever they could in Central London around the turn of the 19th century. Gothic tombs, plush trees, and ornate pathways made it a highly sought-after resting place.
Karl Marx’s grave remains the biggest draw but there are many other well-known figures such as Douglas Adams, Christina Rossetti, and Michael Faraday. Another renowned Highgate inhabitant is an 18th-century Romanian nobleman: the Highgate Vampire. Sudden drops in temperature, red eyes peering through gates, and the sound of rapid movement have all been attributed to Highgate’s resident bloodsucker.
7. The Catacombs of Rome, Italy
Beneath the outskirts of Rome lies the largest and possibly first set of burial tunnels. Dating back to the second century, the word ‘catacombs’ was first used in reference to the tunnels’ proximity to caves near the Appian Way. At one point, they contained the skeletons of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly early Christians in Rome who were often priced out of surface burials by the high cost of land.
While 40 tunnels are known to exist, only 5 are currently open to the public. Scholars suggest there are many more tombs that lay undiscovered. Most bones have now been removed, but the catacombs continue to enrapture visitors keen to understand the early Roman empire.
8. Okunoin Cemetery, Japan
Dating back to 816 AD, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and one of its most revered religious sites. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is laid to rest here, or as Shingon Buddhists believe, engaged in eternal meditation awaiting the arrival of Maitreya, the future Buddha. The pathway to Daishi’s mausoleum is lined with the graves of over 200,000 monks, lit by 10,000 lanterns, and lined with giant, moss-covered pine trees.
There are also many novelty tombstones including a spaceship, a coffee cup, and a monument to termites. Now part of a Unesco world heritage site, Okunoin is regarded as one of the most peaceful cemeteries in the world.
9. Waverley Cemetery, Australia
Located across 40 acres of cliffs in between Bondi and Bronte on the coast of Sydney overlooking the South Pacific, Waverley Cemetery may be the most beautiful burial setting in the world. The architectural elegance of the graves also adds to the aesthetic appeal with bright white Italian Carrara marble chiefly used to sculpt Victorian and Edwardian tombs.
Established in 1877, Waverley Cemetery is now listed as a heritage site with many influential Australians including Henry Lawson, Jules Archibald, and Reuben Uther among the 100,000 buried within.
10. St Louis Cemetery, United States
New Orleans’ high water table leads to the spooky occurrence of coffins floating back to the surface rendering above-ground burials the only viable option in the city. After a major fire in 1788 prompted a redesign of New Orleans, St Louis Cemetery became the city’s main burial site.
Characterised by elaborate graves and colourful tombs, the necropolis’ most famous resident is 19th-century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Legend supposed that any mourner who drew an ‘x’ on her tombstone would receive a granted wish from Laveau. This practice was outlawed following a restoration in 2014.
11. The New Lucky Restaurant, India
Building on ancient burial grounds is one of folklore’s most reckless faux pas, and this was not lost on fledgling restaurant owner Krishnan Kutti. When he realised his newly acquired premises housed 26 graves, he simply built around them, lining up dining booths side by side with exposed coffins.
Iron bars prevent diners from unceremoniously stumbling over the dead, and daily replenished fresh flowers allow Kutti and his colleagues to pay their respects. The identities of the deceased remain unknown but prevailing local sentiment suggests they were Muslim followers of a 16th-century Sufi saint. Best of all, the name isn’t ironic – business is apparently booming.
No list of fascinating resting places would be complete without Pére Lachaise, the world’s most visited cemetery, the largest park in Paris and an open-air museum all at once.
Each year, over 3.5 million people tread the 110 acres of cobbled, tree-lined pathways mainly to glance the final resting places of the many celebrities who populate Pére Lachaise’s grounds including Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Édith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde.
The predominantly Christian cemetery also includes Jewish and Muslim enclosures and three World War One memorials. Still accepting burials over 200 years into existence, Pére Lachaise’s appeal has only increased over time.