It’s often scripted into horror movies and primetime dramas like CSI that the dead communicate with the living. Cemeteries, too, have tales to tell—tales of art, history, architecture, sociology, nature—but suffer from a bit of an image problem.
I propose a new approach. Instead of viewing graveyards as morbid or macabre, why not see them as outdoor museums and botanical gardens—fascinating reflections of a particular cultural and natural setting? Not just the province of the dead and those who mourn them, cemeteries can be celebrated for all they offer the living.
Europe boasts some of the most interesting and elaborate cemeteries in the world. Here are five of the most striking, all of which happen to be located in capital cities:
Icelanders’ love affair with nature is in evidence at Hólavallagarður, just west of the city center, near Tjörnin Pond. An endangered species of moss coats portions of the wall ringing the eight-acre property. Inside, narrow paths wind around headstones, some adorned with barely discernible engravings, while a tangle of trees bearing gnarled branches stands guard.
Birch and rowan predominate, but larch, spruce, willow, and poplar also provide shade in what amounts to one of the more densely wooded forests in the capital city. The air is alive with the fluttering of birds—goldcrest, common blackbird, redwing, and others, providing a truly peaceful respite from the urban hum. During the Christmas season, when days are at their shortest, this 19th-century cemetery is aglow from the candles relatives leave on the graves of their loved ones.
Graves to note: The resting place of Guðrún Oddsdóttir, who, as the cemetery’s first occupant, was assigned the role of “light bringer,” or guide responsible for leading fellow souls to the afterlife. Look for the relief of an oil lamp on the cross marking her grave. Elsewhere, a humble basalt monolith marks the grave of Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, the much beloved Icelandic landscape painter.
Msida Bastion Garden
A crenellated fortification seems like an unlikely setting for a cemetery. And, yet, the former Msida Bastion Cemetery is sunk into a scenic parapet overlooking Marsamxett Harbor on the fringe of Malta’s capital city. Built centuries ago as part of Valletta’s defenses (it played a vital role in efforts to resist Napoleon’s forces) the property was converted to a burial site, Malta’s first Protestant cemetery, in the early 1800s. After operating as a final resting place for a half century, withstanding bombing in World War II, the cemetery closed, falling into disrepair. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a campaign to restore the grounds coalesced.
Reconceived as a garden, the cemetery has enjoyed new life since 1993, becoming a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Scattered-about benches offer the opportunity for reflection and a tranquil spot to take in the view of sailboats anchored at the marina below, verdant expanses of grass dotted with olive trees, palms, oleanders, and ancient pines. Other botanical delights include colorful flower blooms—some visible year-round—such as hibiscus, oleander, and blue Mexican petunias.
Graves to note: Mikiel Anton Vassalli, father of the Maltese language, is buried here, though he’s a Catholic. Having translated the New Testament into Maltese without permission, he fell out of favor with the church.
A lovely woodland is just a 15-minute walk from the central railway station, beside one of Helsinki’s most popular beaches. Hidden within the woods are the graves of soldiers killed in wars against Soviet and Nazi forces in the mid-20th century alongside local luminaries from all fields of life and work.
Set on a sand spit, or promontory, extending into one of the city’s harbors, both the beach and the forested cemetery are given the name Hietaniemi, translated from the Swedish word for this landform. It’s common for everyone, from school children to retirees, to walk through this cemetery to get to the shore. Splashes of color are evident even on a winter’s day, thanks to blossoms left on graves.
Graves to note: Hietaniemi is the final resting place for almost every Finnish president and myriad other notables, such as the master designer and architect Alvar Aalto. To be sure, one of the least somber graves belongs to the family of popular children’s writer Tove Jansson. Japanese tourists often leave small toy replicas of the characters in her whimsical and wildly successful cartoon series Moomin.
A five-minute bus ride (#106) from Kaptol in Zagreb’s Upper Town drops visitors off at the main entrance of Mirogoj Cemetery, the city’s largest. From the street, there’s not a grave in sight—only a monumental brick wall dripping with ivy and capped with a necklace of cupulae. Welcome to one of Zagreb’s great landmarks created by architect Hermann Bollé, who also renovated the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and left his mark all over the Croatian capital.
Beyond the gate and running nearly a half a mile to the left and right is an impressive arcade partially paved with decorative tiles and adorned with dangling cast iron lanterns. Strolling the tree-lined paths through the meticulously landscaped grounds provides a window into Croatia’s history and culture. After all, it’s the resting place for many of the country’s most renowned figures.
Graves to note: A simple but massive polished black granite block marks the grave of Franjo Tuđman, the first president of the Republic of Croatia. Others are more elaborate, with some of Croatia’s most celebrated sculptors playing a role in the funeral monuments. For example, Ivan Rendić, founder of modern Croatian sculpture, is the artist behind the marble rendering of a girl laying flowers at the grave of poet Petar Preradović.
Many people hop on and off the vintage yellow Tram 28 as it navigates Lisbon’s undulating cityscape, plying a route through the city’s most heralded neighborhoods. But few stay on until the terminus: the gates of the capital’s most wooded cemetery, Prazeres. What a shame, because this serene spot provides spectacular views of the iconic 25th de Abril Bridge as well as the placid Tagus River from lookouts along the cemetery’s hilltop perch. Doves, parrots, and other birds flutter about among the lofty cypress groves—planted as a traditional symbol of mourning—and above the well-organized series of paths.
Marble mausoleums are so numerous they could be small stone dwellings in a city of solitude. Glass panels on the facades offer glimpses into Portuguese culture, with lace coverings, linen blankets, and national or sports club flags draping the caskets. Some are accompanied by a framed photo or a charcoal painting of the deceased.
Graves to note: Two sections of the cemetery are dedicated to Portugal’s creatives, including fado singers, artists, and actors. Europe’s largest private mausoleum belongs to the family of Pedro de Sousa Holstein, a prominent aristocrat and politician who served as Portugal’s first prime minister. None other than famed Italian sculptor Antonio Canova created a stunning marble bas-relief inside the mausoleum.
Tip: Helping to navigate this 30-acre expanse, the visitor’s center provides themed self-guided brochures, which, though available in Portuguese only, can be used as a guide to locate features of interest, such as old aristocratic coats of arms or funerary architecture. (A guided tour provides access to Canova’s sculpture.)
Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog.