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The world’s graveyards are as varied as the souls at rest in them. The traditional image of a solemn space filled with grey tombstones and the occasional tree holds true in many instances, but there’s no shortage of strange, unique, and beautiful cemeteries to be found across the world. Here are 11 that both celebrate and pay tribute to life, whether it be through striking backdrops or a general atmosphere of tranquility.
Okunoin Cemetery (Kōya, Japan)
Japan's largest cemetery may also be its most beautiful. With more than 200,000 graves — including memorials to fish turned into meals by chefs and termites that have fallen victim to pesticides — this UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to at least 816 CE and is situated on Mount Kōya, the ancestral home of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Shingon Buddhists believe there are no dead in Okunoin, but rather spirits awaiting the Future Buddha’s resurrection. With thousands of lanterns lighting the way and over a thousand temples alongside its offbeat monuments, Okunoin is as strange as it is serene.
Terlingua Cemetery (Terlingua, Texas, U.S.)
There’s spooky, and then there’s literally located in a ghost town. While Terlingua Cemetery might not catch your eye from a distance, it's hauntingly beautiful up close. Just over one acre in size and home to modest, unadorned graves, this Texas graveyard was established as the final resting place for the workers of a nearby mercury mine in 1903. Fifteen years later, the influenza pandemic added to its numbers. Despite the especially tragic circumstances of its origin — and the fact that, with a full-time population of just 58, residents of Terlingua are outnumbered by the dead — the cemetery is considerably more cheerful on Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. On the Mexican holiday, the graveyard comes alive with colorful candles, flowers, and other decorations as loved ones and other visitors celebrate the lives of those who’ve passed on.
Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery (Jerusalem, Israel)
The Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives has been in use for more than 3,000 years, with estimates placing the number of tombs as high as 150,000. As you might imagine, that's enough to make it both the largest and holiest cemetery in all of Judaism. It’s as rich in history as you’d imagine, if not more so — it's been under the rule of both Jordan and Israel and is the burial place of several biblical figures (including four prophets) — and has a solemn beauty to it. The southern summit is a full 2,652 feet above sea level and overlooks Jerusalem proper, with its views of the city demonstrating how inextricably linked the two are.
Boothill Graveyard (Tombstone, Arizona, U.S.)
You would hope that a famous Old Western town like Tombstone, Arizona, would live up to its name, and Boothill Graveyard ensures that it does. Established in 1878 and well-known for its (in)famous outlaw residents who quite literally departed this mortal coil with their boots on, the vast majority of its interments occurred within five years of its opening. A new city cemetery opened in 1883, and Boothill rarely accepted new burials thereafter. Among its 250 or so permanent residents are Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, who died in the notorious O.K. Corral shootout; Jack Dunlop, better known as Three-Fingered Jack; and the five perpetrators of the Bisbee Massacre.
Merry Cemetery (Săpânţa, Romania)
Rare is the graveyard known for its lighthearted sense of humor, but that’s only part of what makes Merry Cemetery so distinct. One of Romania's most popular destinations for visitors, the brightly colored resting place features the most cheerful headstones you’re ever likely to see — each is painted blue and features an illustration of the dearly departed and a short epitaph about their life. While some of these are as somber as you’d expect, many are quite the opposite: “Ioan Toaderu loved horses,” reads one. “One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.”
Mountain View Cemetery (Oakland, California, U.S.)
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted will always be best known for designing Central Park in New York City, but his work on Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery is no less praiseworthy. Its 226 acres have offered arresting views of the San Francisco Bay since 1863, when a group of pioneers created it as part of the California Rural Cemetery Act. Governors and senators are buried alongside the likes of Folgers Coffee founder J.A. Folger, famous chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, and Elizabeth Short (also known as the “Black Dahlia”), to name just a few. The combination of natural beauty and well-known residents have made Mountain View a popular spot among locals and visitors alike, many of whom even picnic there!
Père Lachaise Cemetery (Paris, France)
Père Lachaise Cemetery is the most-visited necropolis in the world, and for good reason: It's the forever home of everyone from Jim Morrison and Frédéric Chopin to Oscar Wilde to Molière. You can feel its history as you walk down its paths, and not only because it was built more than two centuries ago — Père Lachaise is in the heart of Paris and has always been a tremendously important part of the city. There are monuments to both World Wars, as well as the graves of victims of concentration camps and the 1848 Revolution. Historians estimate that anywhere between 300,000 and one million people are buried there.
Bonaventure Cemetery (Savannah, Georgia, U.S.)
If Georgia is on your mind, no trip to the Peach State is complete without a stop at Bonaventure Cemetery. The Southern Gothic cemetery has been a sight to behold since it was built just east of Savannah in 1846, but it took on new levels of fame when it was featured on the cover of John Berendt's 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which spent 216 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list — a record that stands to this day — and was used to shoot several scenes in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation. Archibald Bulloch, Georgia's first governor, is among those buried in Bonaventure, as are singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer, interim Supreme Court Justice Samuel B. Adams, and many other politicians, clergymen, and artists.
Punta Arenas Cemetery (Punta Arenas, Chile)
Dating back to classical antiquity, cypress trees have symbolized death, mourning, and the afterlife. That tradition lives on at Chile’s Punta Arenas Cemetery (officially known as Cementerio Municipal Sara Braun), where cypresses trimmed to perfection line the paths of a village-like graveyard first built in 1894. The dead are laid to rest in mausoleums, crypts, and under traditional headstones at Punta Arenas, which was made a National Monument of Chile in 2012. It also has its fair share of mythology, including one about Sara Braun, a pioneer who played a crucial role in opening the cemetery. According to legend, she's uninterred every November 1 to have her hair and makeup touched up.
Neptune Memorial Reef (Key Biscane, Florida, U.S.)
For all their differences, the world’s most beautiful cemeteries have at least one thing in common — they’re all on dry land. Well, not quite — Neptune Memorial Reef, the world's largest human-made reef, was originally built three miles east of Key Biscayne with the intention of holding the remains of 850 people. There's even a unique process in which people's ashes are blended with concrete and molded into tombstones, sculptures (including lions, sea turtles, and mermaids), and other structures to form the ever-expanding memorial. It covers more than 600,000 square feet of ocean floor, where space is plentiful — if Neptune Reef’s founders have their way, this uniquely gorgeous site will one day hold as many as 125,000 remains.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Los Angeles, California, U.S.)
Not a lot of cemeteries host outdoor movie screenings every summer — but then again, not a lot of cemeteries are located in the heart of the film industry. True to its name, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is where countless silver-screen legends are buried: Judy Garland, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, and Marion Davies — just to name a few. Founded in 1899 as Hollywood Cemetery and situated next to the Paramount Pictures lot, the cemetery is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. True to its name, it’s also been used as a shooting location for everything from the TV series The Walking Dead (2010) to the thriller Under the Silver Lake (2018). For all its tranquil beauty (the cemetery houses a small lake with a mausoleum in the center, among other unique features), there’s also something glamorous about Hollywood Forever that’s very much in keeping with the stars at rest there.