CW: Discussion of death, including that of babies and children
Last month, my boyfriend and I took a two week trip to Ireland, London, Paris and Amsterdam. It was the first time we had ever been in Europe, and we decided that we’d love to straight-up move to Amsterdam if an opportunity arose.
I’ll eventually get around to writing about our experiences in each country, but I felt motivated to start by writing about my favorite part of traveling to new places: visiting those weird, dark, unexpected spots where many people look at me blankly and ask, “But…why?”
I’ve always been fascinated by the weird, the dark, the macabre. I loved reading about the Salem Witch Trials growing up. I was fascinated with methods of medieval torture. I loved ghost stories and the morbid histories of places. I remember going to the library and checking out books about plagues and learning about the strange things people used to do in the name of medicine. I remember being especially fascinated with the bit in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book about blowing up a pig bladder and using it as a kickball.
Yeah. I’ve always been a bit strange.
And, traveling to Europe, I was especially excited because, as comedian Eddie Izzard says, “It’s where the history comes from!”
I was determined to do it right. Even though we only had 3-4 days in each country, I compiled a lengthy list of all of the things that interested me and hoped that my boyfriend would humor me for some of them. (While he also likes this sort of thing, he drew the line at the Museum of Wax Skin Disease Models in Paris.)
The website Atlas Obscura is amazing for finding the strange and unusual places in cities all over the world. Just check it out and you’ll probably find something amusing within half an hour of where you live!
Before you ask, yes, I have watched the new Netflix series Dark Tourist. I will say that I’m not so much into participating in emotionally scarring mock border-crossings and venturing into highly radioactive areas the way the host is. I’m more firmly in the safe museum-and-historical-monument type camp.
Especially cemeteries. Oh, the cemeteries.
I’m going to have to get to the other weird things we visited some other time, because this post is already going to be extensive! (But photo laden!)
My love for cemeteries spans back as far as I can remember. We lived down the road from one when I was growing up, and I was always excited when we’d take a family walk to it. I’d roam the rows of aged headstones, searching for the oldest dates in the graveyard. I don’t ever remember being scared being in them. I always felt extremely at peace there.
There’s a beautiful stillness and a sense of quiet. A solidness. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, but it’s an extremely grounding experience for me each time I visit a cemetery. I think about the lives these people have lived a century ago, the families they might have had. When there are beautifully tended flowers by a grave of someone who died a hundred years ago, I wonder if there’s still family living out there who comes by to visit. Or if it’s just a kind stranger. Or the groundskeepers. Or it’s something that was planted back when people still visited and it has maintained itself all these years.
I’ve gone down internet rabbit holes, researching how cemeteries can stay in operation, especially after they’re full and no longer earning money from new burials. I’ve learned that they can be abandoned, and that there’s also trusts in place so that they can remain operational on the interest.
I’ve learned that the reason most cemeteries require concrete vaults is so that the ground won’t cave in once the casket deteriorates and make mowing more difficult.
I’ve learned that those walls of drawers that store ashes are called Columbariums, and that a space in one at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin will cost you €850 and you can find the costs for any sort of service you never knew you’d need online.
I think a lot about cemeteries.
I loved the stories you could glean from the dates and the words on the monuments. A woman who died when she was 23 years old and the stone simply labeled “BABY” next to her. A family stone with four people with the same death year, probably from a time when a disease epidemic swept the area.
But, back in my home state of Michigan, it was often difficult to find anything older than perhaps the 1850s. Now that I’m on the East Coast, you can find a bit older.
I even had part of my engagement photo shoot in a cemetery behind our apartment in Chicago (Calvary Cemetery, Evanston IL, founded in 1859.) I now wonder if that was perhaps a bit disrespectful, but I genuinely loved it.
When my boyfriend and I went to New York City last Labor Day weekend, I was told that we should check out Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (built in 1838.) It was our favorite thing we did that weekend, hands down. It was absolutely HUGE and we only got perhaps halfway through it.
Then there’s some cemeteries in Philadelphia. There’s one, Laurel Hill Cemetery, that hosts a huge variety of events, from craft fairs to circuses! Founded in 1836, it’s the third oldest “major garden or rural cemetery in the United States,” after Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston (1831) and Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor Maine (1834.) And on our way to finding it for the first time last year (for the “Gone but Not Forgotten Market of the Macabre”) my boyfriend and I stumbled across this amazing old shady cemetery at the St. James the Lesser Church (1846).
And, turns out, I don’t have any daylight photos of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philly, but I did attend “The Ghostly Circus: Dante’s Inferno” there a couple weeks ago and watched aerialists and tightrope walkers rigged up between mausoleums!
With all my cemetery travels in the U.S. you won’t be surprised that we visited a few while we were in Europe.
Our first stop was Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland. Opened in 1832, it was the first multi-denominational graveyard in Ireland, and contains the graves of many important Irish political figures.
There’s also a large “Angels” plot, which serves as the burial site to hundreds of stillborn babies and children.
Glasnevin also has its own cemetery museum, discussing its history and burial practices. In the 1850s, it was discovered that, as the buried bodies were decaying (especially those killed by cholera) the resulting fluid seeped into the water table and began leeching into the Tolka River which ran across the city. After this was discovered, they made a drainage system underneath the cemetery in the 1850s to prevent the remains from tainting the city’s water supply.
There are also high watch towers around the perimeter to stop bodysnatchers who were quite active in Dublin in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They sold the bodies to medical schools for dissection and research, and there was quite an active trade in acquiring these bodies by any means necessary. (You can hear an episode of the Strange and Unusual Podcast about bodysnatching here.)
We didn’t end up visiting any cemeteries while in England, though Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries were on my list. We did do a Jack the Ripper walking tour, though, which was pretty great. And the Tower of London, which was a bit of a letdown. (Also it was packed, 95 degrees and sunny, so that didn’t help matters…)
In Paris, my #1 MUST DO activity was to visit the Catacombs. And, let me tell ya, it did not disappoint! But first, on our way to the Catacombs, we stopped by the Montparnasse Cemetery. It was established in 1824 and notable graves include those of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. It is the second largest in Paris, after the Père Lachaise (which I also wanted to visit but, ya know, time constraints and whatnot…)
Eventually, I’m going to do a whole post on the Catacombs because it’s a really fascinating story on how it was established and such, but I’ll include a couple photos in here for good measure!
The basic rundown is that the Catacombs are old limestone mines underneath the city of Paris. In the end of the 1700s, the cemeteries in the city limits began collapsing into the basements of the shops and such, filling them with bones and bodies, forcing action to figure out what to do with these mass graves. The bones were transported across town with nightly processions in wagons, helmed by priests so they could be considered a “Christian burial” and tossed down into the old mines.
Eventually, in 1810, Louis-Étienne François Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, decided to organize the piles of bones into a visitable mausoleum. Different banks of bones are labeled with the cemeteries from which they came, and when.
There’s been some really interesting things that have happened in the Catacombs over the years, including a fully equipped illegal movie theatre and an Airbnb publicity stunt in which one lucky winner could stay there overnight. Both the Nazis and the French Resistance established bunkers in the Catacombs and neither party ever discovered the other during their residences!
People have gotten so lost they died in the catacombs and were found a decade later, and there are people called “Cataphiles” who are a notorious group of people who love spending time in the Catacombs, even if it means all sorts of illegal activity.
We also stumbled across an unconventional memorial site while in Paris one evening. We found this small memorial for Princess Diana just outside the tunnel where she had her fatal car crash in 1997.
We didn’t visit any cemeteries in Amsterdam, but we did see the Torture Museum! (But that’s for another post…)
I’ve begun a sort of morbid bucket list for my travels, and the item that has been at the top of it for quite some time is the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Repubic, just outside of Prague. It’s also known as the “Bone Church” and is complete with bone chandeliers, chalices, crests, and the like.
I know some people are never going to understand why anyone would be so fascinated by the morbid, but hey, I don’t get what’s so great about eating an expensive meal surrounded by tons of tourists at the top of the Eiffel Tower!
Who needs your tourist traps when you can spend some peace and quiet with some of the most historic of locals?