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. For many people, visiting cemeteries is rather morbid and depressing. 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. The idea that life is meaningful because of what happens after we die is dangerous and devalues life on earth. It is death that 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. However, many cultures celebrate death as a mere right of passage 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. 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 in the Guatemalan highlands, the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana (one of the most important cemeteries in Latin America), Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (the second largest burial site in Europe), the finest funerary architecture in Italy and Portugal, London’s Highgate Cemetery where nature has reclaimed human constructions, the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the above-ground tombs of New Orleans, Muslim and Jewish cemeteries in 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, the Catacombs of Paris, 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 that art historian Paul Koudounaris has photographed.