Matters of grave concern

As Halloween approaches, Brian Johnston explains his attraction to gatherings of the departed.

I make no apologies for walking among the dead. I've spend many a pleasant hour reflecting on life, death, history, politics and human vanity in cemeteries around the world.

Why visit a museum and ignore a graveyard? Both say something about our tastes in art and architecture and the aspirations of societies that have gone before.

But graveyards say much more: how we seek to glamorise and beautify the unspeakable, how we etch lines on stones like the ultimate Facebook post, just to prove we matter.

Some are lured by dead celebrities but for me, cemeteries are an ode to unsung men and women who have toiled and sinned, loved and laughed. They remind me that history isn't about princes in palaces but the collective efforts of countless unknown individuals.

For a moment, the forgotten ones flare in my mind. Like Ioan Toaderu, a resident of Sapanta cemetery in Romania, whose epitaph records that he loved sitting at a table in a bar next to someone else's wife.

Or the foot soldiers and traders of white India, carried off by tropical disease and mutiny to Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta.

I wonder about the brief life of Catherine Louisa Larkins, who leaves behind a sagging mausoleum, taken over by a dhoti-clad caretaker, and festively festooned with drying underpants.

Cemeteries pretty with green lawns and neoclassical grace don't interest me much. You can enjoy squirrels and the elegy of graves graced with a pink pop of petunias but they distract from deeper thoughts. Other cemeteries are disconcertingly cheerful. In Oaxaca in Mexico on November 1, marimba bands play and families picnic on gravestones sprinkled with marigold petals.

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In Assistens Kirkegard in Copenhagen, taut-skinned, blond Danes sunbathe among the graves, still young enough to believe death is just for other people.

War cemeteries are pretty too but at Villers-Bretonneux the white rows of regimented markers stun and silence me: the chaos of war transformed into clipped order. The best cemeteries not only move me like this but have character too.

Some have an aching beauty, like Okuni-in in the countryside south of Osaka in Japan, mossy and misty and pine-scented.

At dusk, lanterns glimmer and Buddhas smile compassionately over little statues wearing children's clothing, donated by grieving parents. Or like the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, with 600 years of toppled tombstones: gothic, terribly sad among damp fallen leaves, within chatter of tourist cafes and the horrible howl of history.

My cemetery wanderings are far from complete but here are more final resting places well worth a visit.

ZENTRALFRIEDHOF

VIENNA

"Taking the 71" is the Viennese equivalent of popping your clogs. The No.71 tram rattles you to this interdenominational sprawl, opened in 1874 on what was then Vienna's outskirts. Some three million people are tucked away here and fierce competition for attention produces lavish tombs where wrestling nudes and pick-axe-wielding dwarfs provide unexpected pleasures.

An audio-visual guide indicates the marbled highlights. In summer, when flowers unfurl, locals stroll the parkland. In winter, the austere Jewish section's lopsided tombstones and clawed trees suit bleaker meditations.

Afterwards, the coffeehouse beyond the entrance is cheerful with dimpled waitresses and whipped cream.

Style Eclectic. The crematorium resembles an Arabian fort, the church is Art Nouveau splendid.

Dead famous Composers decompose, including Beethoven, Brahms and the Strausses. Schubert's grave is prettiest. Mozart gets a memorial but moulders elsewhere.

Tour Take a horse-drawn carriage tour (vienna-carriage.com; romance isn't dead, even in a cemetery.

More friedhoefewien.at.

HIGHGATE CEMETERY

LONDON

Dedicated in 1839, Highgate is the definitive cemetery of an age enamoured with black crepe and perpetual mourning. Bram Stoker hung out here to conjure creepiness when writing Dracula. English eccentrics shuffle under the dripping trees, claiming vampires haunt the main gate. This North London cemetery has marvellous horror-movie chic: weeping stone cherubs, cracked tombstones, gargoyle monsters and an abandonment of artful ivy.

Mould-green catacombs and mausoleums yawn. Angels drape themselves on tombstones like consumptive heroines in Victorian novels. Spooky, but plenty of soul, too.

Style Haggard high Victorian, where Gothic and Ancient Egyptian meet in a clutter of gargoyles and obelisks.

Dead famous Douglas Adams, George Eliot, Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti. Plus that Russian bloke assassinated by polonium.

Tour Charles Dickens' parents, siblings and many of his associates rest here, providing an interesting angle during a Dickens Tour (dickensfellowship.org).

More highgatecemetery.org.

CIMETIERE DU PERE-LACHAISE

PARIS

The largest cemetery in Paris is famed for famous residents and troublesome teenaged American tourists who leave lipstick marks on tombstones and play rock music. The French scatter roses over poets. But it's easy to get lost here: paths peter out, leaving you to stumble over higgledy-piggledy graves, toppled pillars and time-tilted gravestones. Monuments to victims of concentration camps and heroes of the Resistance are moving, while extraordinary bronze effigies recline in frockcoats and top hats. Don't miss the utterly macabre yet groin-groped effigy of Victor Noir, much visited by husband-hunting hopefuls.

Style Very French. Plenty of bare bosoms and disconcertingly sexy statues in Napoleonic mourning garb.

Dead famous Notable French scribblers, actors and singers, including Edith Piaf. Plus Chopin, Jim Morrison and poor old Oscar Wilde.

Tour A Viator walking tour (viator.com) takes you around the celebrity sites and more eccentric locations too.

More pere-lachaise.com.

CIMITERO MONUMENTALE

MILAN

Members of Milan's high society shuffle off to their eternal repose in this Versace of cemeteries, where bling and marble merge. The cemetery displays a century and a half of afterlife design excess that runs from Greek temples to Art Nouveau tombs. Occasionally, a gaunt-ribbed grim reaper stands out from the flurry of feathered wings and robed graces. Some of the sculpture is very fine, while some (like the 3D version of The Last Supper) collapses into kitsch. Ask for a guide to the most elaborate frivolity, and be amazed.

Style Hysterical Italian. Expect soprano mausoleums, sentimentality and a convention of tearful Madonnas.

Dead famous Alessandro Manzoni, Salvatore Quasimodo, Toscanini and many another arty Italian.

Tour Free guided tours on the first and third Saturday of the month, but only in Italian.

More monumentale.net.

CEMENTERIO DE LA RECOLETA

BUENOS AIRES

You've made it in Argentina if you're allowed to decay in well-heeled Recoleta. Since 1822, the country's most eminent citizens have ended up here in over 6000 mausoleums, around 70 of which are listed national monuments. Some are severe black granite, others wedding-cake outbursts studded with saints and winged victories. Bronze plaques remind of wars, quote Borges, trail lovely laments at passers-by. Feral cats prowl among tombstones in astonishment, sunning themselves on opulent marble. For your Halloween frisson, peer through grilles at crack-open coffins.

Style Latin high drama, where magpie inspiration runs from fake Babylonian to pseudo-Greek and modernist cubes, yet also produces art deco masterpieces.

Dead famous Prominent Argentine literary figures, dictators and presidents, including don't-cry-for-me Eva Peron, lodged among her in-laws in a modest mausoleum.

Tour Free guided tours in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Spanish-language tours daily except Monday.

More cementeriorecoleta.com.ar.

GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY

NEW YORK

A democratic slice of New York's great and good, from industrialists to politicians and artists, end up in this parklike graveyard in Brooklyn, having moved from brownstone houses into brownstone mausoleums.

A gay penchant for stained glass and azaleas adds a cheerful note. In the 19th century, Green-Wood was favoured among the living for excursions. Parts of the tree-studded cemetery have great views over Manhattan, and rolling hills and pond-peaceful valleys still make for a happy hike.

Rather wonderful in winter too, when snow falls on headless angels and gargoyles sport icicle beards.

Style Gothic Revival from its entrance gates to its resting pavilions, giving it perfect Halloween allure.

Dead famous Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, congressmen, mobsters and inventors of the safety pin and sewing machine.

Tour Big Onion (bigonion.com) organises private walking tours, with tales of gang warfare, scandal and commercial enterprise.

More green-wood.com.

NEW ORLEANS

The city's oldest cemetery was truly ghoulish when it opened in 1789: all too often, the interred floated to the surface during New Orleans' regular floods. They now reside in above-ground tombs that make for a fantastic, jammed-in jumble behind grimacing iron fences.

The swampy climate has taken its toll: grand mausoleums crumble on the shabby side of chic. You can get lost (and occasionally mugged) in canyoned marble avenues, where visitors claim to see the ghosts of yellow-fever victims and Civil War soldiers. At dusk, you could believe in zombies.

Style Nineteenth-century French and Spanish, though relatively unadorned, resulting in a rather Cubist appeal.

Dead famous Supposedly, 19th-century voodoo queen Marie Laveau, whose tomb still attracts flowers, dehydrated mice and tarot cards.

Tour Save Our Cemeteries (saveourcemeteries.org).

More neworleansonline.com.

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