Home > News > Big Story > Would you take a trip to the cemetery for a day out with the dead?

Would you take a trip to the cemetery for a day out with the dead?

Picnicking in a cemetery may seem ghoulish and macabre, but the resting places of the dead have been used by the living for a long time

The famous Père Lachaise in Paris is the final resting place of many celebrities, including Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Frédéric Chopin and Gertrude Stein.(iStock photo)

By Teja Lele

LAST PUBLISHED 21.03.2024  |  06:00 AM IST

Before cities had parks and gardens in Europe, it wasn’t unusual to see families with food hampers heading to the local picnic destination: the cemetery. Regardless of the sombre setting, children played hide and seek among graves, families sat down to connect over sandwiches and cupcakes in the green spaces, and couples walked hand in hand under the tall trees rising towards heaven.

Picnicking in a cemetery may seem ghoulish and macabre, but the resting places of the dead have been used by the living for a long time. Dr Pamela Stewart, historian and senior lecturer emerita at Arizona State University, says cemeteries tend to be peaceful and people often seek out quiet spaces, especially in urban areas. “People are also curious about the past and how it intersects with our current lives. Cemeteries are at that nexus," she says.


Also read: Ice swimming in Copenhagen

In the 18th and 19th centuries, war, epidemics, complications from childbirth and low immunity meant death was everywhere. People chose to get away from the squalor of the city to break bread with family and friends, living and deceased, in cemeteries. Stewart says the idea of “including" the dead in celebrations or remembrances makes sense to many. “Memories keep us connected to those no longer physically with us. Plus, many cemeteries are essentially open spaces that accommodate picnicking in ways that can be difficult to find elsewhere."

For long, graveyards had been grim places on church grounds, but as towns grew to cities and populations rose, burial grounds were moved outside the city limits to reduce the impact on public health and tackle overcrowding. Flower beds and verdant greenery replaced the austere reminders of the church, and the public soon began coming in to enjoy the grounds.

A place for recreation

Increasingly, cemeteries designed after 1800 were places with winding roads and striking vistas, and served the need for much-needed recreation spaces.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte established the famed Père Lachaise in Paris to provide a solution to neglected church graveyards. The largest cemetery in Paris was meant to be the first-of-its-kind organised burial ground owned by the city. Today, it’s a huge tourist attraction that draws more than three million people every year.

Elegant landscaping, semi-wild areas, beautiful sculptures, and more than 5,000 trees adorn the grounds that are the final resting place of many celebrities: Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Georges Méliès, Marcel Marceau, Olivia de Havilland, Frédéric Chopin and Gertrude Stein.

JRD Tata and a few of his family members are buried in a vault made of speckled grey marble in Père Lachaise. Three words that evoke the highest Zoroastrian principles – humata (good thoughts), hukhta (good words) and huvarashta (good deeds) – are inscribed on the vault.


view all

Rural cemeteries like Père Lachaise were designed to offer sanctuary, solitude, quiet, adornment, and beauty. “People continue to leave flowers, other remembrances, and even ashes of the departed in that area. Visiting during le temps des cerises, or cherry blossom time, is a reminder of the life and death of an attempt to create revolutionary change—and the price many pay in that attempt," Dr Stewart says, recalling her visit to the Paris cemetery.

Inspired by Père Lachaise, London set up garden cemeteries, including Highgate, Kensal Green Cemetery and Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, Brompton Cemetery, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, Nunhead Cemetery, and Abney Park. Known as London’s “Magnificent Seven", these were built between the 1830s and 1840s and became famous for their serene beauty.

In New York, people routinely made their way to Saint Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, lugging baskets containing sandwiches, ginger snaps and fruit. With gravestones dating to 1704, the cemetery is one of the oldest burial grounds in the US and reveals the change in attitudes toward death over three centuries.

Less than 115 km away, in Dayton, Ohio, Victorian-era women, parasols in hand, promenaded at Woodland Cemetery as they headed to luncheon. Established in 1841, the cemetery remains a place of remembrance and refuge, but is now also renowned for its Romanesque architecture, 17 fine Tiffany windows, frescoes and stained glass windows. The lush greenery makes it one of the best birdwatching spots in the city.

The rural cemeteries were followed by woodland cemeteries. Munich Waldfriedhof, one of 29 cemeteries in Munich, Germany, is considered to be the world’s first woodland cemetery. Planned by architect Hans Grässel and opened in 1907, it holds almost 60,000 graves. Grässel’s idea was to foster a feeling of connection between nature and death, and he decided to locate the burial chapel in the forest, let the trees grow tall, and allow greenery to cover the tombs.

I find that Skogskyrkogården, a peaceful Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, Sweden, focuses more on memory than death. Created between 1917 and 1920, renowned Swedish architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz designed a homogenous vista of landscape and structures to showcase the cycle of life—hope and sorrow, light and darkness, nature and architecture, life and death. The UNESCO World Heritage Site melds architectural structures with the landscape, drawing inspiration from German forest cemeteries like Waldfriedhof and Friedhof Ohlsdorf, Hamburg.

The 107-hectare cemetery is surrounded by a stone wall, and the landscape opens up as soon as I enter from the semi-circular main entrance. It’s a stunning sight: the iconic Almhöjden (Elm Hill) and the magnificent stone cross, designed by Gunnar Asplund. In the distance, the dark green silhouette of the pine woodland hints at the presence of a burial ground. The 10,000 pine tree trunks rise up between the gravestones like pillars, forming a green canopy, and shading the more than 100,000 graves.

The forest is home to Skogskapellet (Woodland Chapel, the cemetery’s smallest chapel; and Uppståndelsekapellet (Chapel of Resurrection), which has a neoclassical design and is the final destination for the eye from Sju brunnars stig (the seven wells path), a processional path that passes through the woodland to the southern part of the cemetery.

The design taps the irregularities in the site to create a landscape finely adapted to its function. The green area includes a long route that splits into two paths that meander through diverse landscapes and architectural elements before coming together and the Resurrection Chapel.

The UNESCO inscription calls Skogskyrkogården “an outstanding example" of the successful application of the 20th-century concept of “architecture wholly integrated into its environment: the chapels and other buildings there would lose much of their meaning if isolated from the landscape for which they were conceived".

However, the cemetery is not on top of most tourists’ to-do lists, perhaps because it doesn’t have the celebrity quotient of Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery (despite it being Greta Garbo’s last resting place). It is a must visit, particularly on All Saints’ Day, when thousands of candles and lanterns are lit across the cemetery, lining graves and the bases of trees.

The living can sometimes be uncomfortable with death. But cemeteries, a place where people can be one with natural and the circle of life, offer a chance to retreat from the busy pace of modern life and lean into our feelings.

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

Also read: Chasing ghosts and spirits in Dublin