The cemetery: a worthwhile stopping place

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

Interesting people can be found in hostels, bus stations, and everywhere else where lungs pull in breath. Then there are the places where lungs have long fallen still: cemeteries. Interesting people are found here, too.

For example, behind an Anglican church in Macau in late 2004, I met a young woman named Abby Kerr. She was a native of New Hampshire, married, and had come to China as a Presbyterian missionary. The fact that she was dead — she had died in 1855 at the age of 26 — didn’t hinder my ability to feel connected to her. I could picture the goodbye to family and friends in New England as she and her husband boarded a ship and sailed into uncertainty and mission, and I had some idea of the culture shock they would have experienced as they set foot on an utterly foreign shore.

Walking to nearby headstones a few minutes later, I met Oliver Mitchell, a seaman from Vermont who died of dysentery in 1850, and John Griffin, a sailor who died a year earlier “by a fall from aloft.” Then, after admiring the scent of a frangipani tree, I stopped at the grave of Edmund Roberts, an American diplomat who negotiated treaties with the courts of Muscat and Siam. For maybe two hours I wandered here, the graveyard all to myself, moving from one headstone to the next, imaging the people, the period, and the myriad reasons people leave their homelands behind.

Famous cemeteries are often listed in guidebooks. Perhaps the best known is Paris’ 118-acre Pere Lachaise, the resting place of Jim Morrison (and many, many other people). Savannah has the Bonaventure Cemetery, Prague the Old Jewish Cemetery, Medellín the Cementerio de San Pedro, and so on — any city where people are alive will have places where they are dead! The vast majority of cemeteries, however, aren’t found in guidebooks. Straying from the beaten path sometimes can be just a matter of stepping into a garden of stone.

In a 2008 article about famous cemeteries in Forbes Traveler, David Farley quotes Jon Berendt (author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) on the value of cemeteries: “Cemeteries are fascinating. They’re a living representation of the culture, the history, the passion of the civilization that deposits its dead there; they’re a spiritual link to the past.” In addition, I think, cemeteries assist us in putting our own present lives—their brevity, fragility, and perhaps meaning—into perspective.

If you’ve been to a cemetery you’d recommend to others or would like to add to the pros (and cons?) of visiting such places, please leave a note in the comment section.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | January 14, 2010
Category: General, Images from the road

4 Responses to “The cemetery: a worthwhile stopping place”

  1. Nicolaï Says:

    Boston has some fascinating, tiny cemetaries downtown.

  2. Joan Raskiewicz Says:

    I love cemeteries. Charleston, SC has some great ones. I love the monuments that tell a whole story. I have tons of pictures too. In the US, you just don’t see modern monuments and memorials like they did in the past.

  3. Nagham Says:

    Hi Joel,

    This is a great idea. I do believe that people live in the hearts of people they love forever.

    All the best