Cemeteries

I visited the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise on a rainy winter day in 2007. I was moved by this experience. The romantic atmosphere, weathered look of old gravestones and statues, and impressive array of ornate, ostentatious tombs made me want to explore historic cemeteries all over the globe. Cemeteries chronicle the history of cities and towns, while gravestones and inscriptions can reflect customs of a given era and provide touching glimpses into how people lived, what they valued, and how they were thought of by others. Many people consider cemeteries to be macabre, but for me, a cemetery is a place of contemplation. It is where I feel the most peaceful and in touch with my own mortality. I became increasingly fascinated by how different cultures and religions perceive and handle death after I visited Varanasi, the world’s largest crematorium where bodies are burned out in the open. Encountering death so frankly was another powerful reminder of why I should live life fully. It is death that gives life meaning and inspires us to contribute to something greater than ourselves. In the West, death is a taboo subject that is rarely discussed, a hard boundary that cannot be transgressed, a distressing reminder of the inevitable. However, many cultures celebrate death, instead of being in denial of it, and maintain a soft border between the living and the dead. For example, in Bolivia, a skull ritual is performed every year and in Indonesia, dead family members are mummified and kept at home. In Buddhist meditation, there are exercises meant to increase awareness of one's mortality in an attempt to cultivate acceptance that everything is transient and nothing lasts forever. Deliberately pondering our own death can have positive effects on our behavior by plunging us into more authentic life modes and allowing us to see ourselves as we truly are. Bringing death mindfulness to a meditative discipline can decrease suffering caused by our clinging to life, identification with our beliefs, attachment to our desires, relationships, achievements, and possessions. The idea is to die before you die so you can be free. The images in this gallery depict the colorful Chichicastenango Cemetery, the victorian Highgate Cemetery where nature has reclaimed human constructions, the above-ground tombs of New Orleans, the finest funerary architecture in Florence and Venice, Muslim and Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul, Jerusalem, Marrakech, and Kerala, Cairo's massive El-Arafa Cemetery, an ancient necropolis in Israel containing more than 30 burial cave systems, Japanese and Cambodian cemeteries, tombs with human skeletons in the rock-cut churches in Cappadocia, and naturally mummified bodies in the crypt of a monastery school in Mexico City. I have yet to visit some of the magnificent church ossuaries and burial catacombs that art historian Dr. Koudounaris has photographed.