Grave Discoveries

I’m not sure why I find old cemeteries so intriguing. I do know that I share this interest with many others, including more than a few bloggers. When I did a Google search on this particular fascination, I discovered that there is actually a name for those of us who consider a visit to an old – and the older the better – graveyard an essential stop on any trip: Tombstone Tourists (also, “cemetery enthusiasts,” “grave hunters,” “gravers,” or “taphophiles”).

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit many memorable cemeteries.  Some, like the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, are known for their famous inhabitants. Most, though, are populated by those known and loved only by a relatively small circle of family and friends. And, since the graveyards I love to visit are so old, probably that small circle of people is mostly gone too.

After visiting the Colon Cemetery in Havana, Cuba a couple of years ago, I thought it would be hard to match it for size, history, and architecture. So, you can imagine my excitement (OK, maybe if you don’t share this particular passion, it may be hard to imagine my excitement) when I discovered a city cemetery while looking at a map of Oaxaca. Even better, by the looks of the area indicated on the map with little crosses, it was a big one. Yippee!

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Oaxaca’s San Miguel Cemetery was established in 1829 because of the city’s urgent need to bury large numbers of citizens killed by a smallpox epidemic. In 1833, it again was used to bury victims of cholera. Construction of a chapel in the middle of the cemetery was started in 1839, but was suspended due to, according to a plaque, “constant rebellions that were held in that time in the city.” Suspended, and never finished (an old crumbling building… yippee, again!).

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The cemetery is surrounded by tall stone walls and an interior walkway that features 100 arches and over 2000 burial niches. The gravesites, tombstones, and alters tell a rich history of religious traditions, cultural heritage, and even geology, as many of the graves show the effects of the multiple earthquakes that have occurred over the years.

During the Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead celebrations, October 31st – November 2nd, San Miguel Cemetery is blanketed with flowers, candles and alters decorate the graves, and each of the burial niches are illuminated. It is supposed to be a spectacular sight; one that I hope we will experience for ourselves in the next few years.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

58 thoughts on “Grave Discoveries”

  1. A Tombstone Tourist? I rather like the sound of that 🙂

    What a contrast from this old cemetery to the typical modern cemeteries we see today. This one is a work of art. I particularly liked the first photo featured at the beginning with the 3 cherubs holding their heads. I know it’s probably intended to reflect sorrow, but I can’t help think they’re saying ‘what were they thinking?’ 🙂

    1. Thank you for writing a great comment. I agree totally. Today’s cemeteries are rather boring while older ones are fascinating. There is a cemetery near a local park we go to, and I walk through the area. There is one stone that says on the back ‘at least we had Paris.’ I have thought of that and wondered the context ever since. 🙂

      1. I think those personal inscriptions add so much. So many modern cemeteries have restrictions on the size and shape of the tombstone and what can be written on it. The people buried there were individuals and should be treated as such.

    2. I thought you’d like that name for those of us with this particular interest. This cemetery was so beautiful because of its imperfections… so different from the rows of duplicate tombstones you see today. Many of the graves were still lovingly being cared for many generations later by family members.

  2. I love how your passion shines through in this post! Terrific galleries.

    I don’t think I fit into the taphophile category, but I have visited many cemeteries, and not for the “normal” reasons. I suppose I should add “fortunately.”

    I love the cool and the quiet. The inscriptions on the stones can be revealing or mystifying – clues to the times, the epidemics, and the hardships.

    1. You are so right about the quietness of cemeteries. Very peaceful… just like the “residents” want it! The grave markers tell the history of an area, if you know how to read them… kind of like your rocks and minerals.

  3. Cemeteries, particularly in different parts of the world, can be do fascinating? I think the largest o e I have ever come across was in Morocco. It was massive!

  4. I like visiting cemeteries, too. I enjoy seeing the variety of tombstones and names. Your photos are cool, way beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the USA.

  5. My mother was big on cemetery visits. The older the better. As a child we would make up stories about the family. Sometimes there was a man buried with two or three wives (consecutive, not concurrent) because so many women died in childbirth back then. I especially loved when they included a picture on the tombstone. I was fascinated with the cemeteries in New Orleans. I love how folks used to treasure their ancestors. I don’t think that happens these days.

    1. Unfortunately, when we visited New Orleans last, I didn’t know about the lure of graveyards. I bet those are spectacular! Perhaps a reason to go back… It is fun to speculate about the history behind some of the inscriptions. Multiple wives and, often many, many children (some only a few hours or days old) buried together.

  6. Your timing of this blog is immaculate again, Janis, since we are currently being Tombstone Tourists ourselves. Every day! A block away from our current house sit lays Mountainview Cemetery (see bottom photo in my last blog post), which is bordered by St. Mary’s Cemetery! We walk the dogs there for an hour every afternoon and discover new pathways and roads, let alone graves and monuments every time. It is quite grand, and old and offers fantastic views of Oakland and – when the fog is not too bad – San Francisco. I recommend a visit if you are ever in the area. It is not well-known, but a joy to explore. 🙂 No colorful flags in this one, though. Oh, it was designed by the same architect who did Central Park (Olmsted).

  7. I’m a old cemetery fan too…you can’t help wondering about all the lost stories. There is a circle of victorian cemeteries around London (called the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and I’d recommend a visit to the one in Highgate (north London) – burial place of Karl Marx. Enough fascinating grave stones/catacombs/statuary to keep any taphophiles happy!

    1. That sounds fabulous! I have developed a habit of checking city maps wherever we are just to see what cemeteries might be available for a visit. Fortunately, my husband indulges me (and may have caught the bug a bit himself).

  8. Aside from Arlington and a civil war cemetery that the Appalachian Trail went through I don’t have much experience as a “taphophile.” I think you would have appreciated the civil war cemetery though. It was unbordered but well maintained. In the center, the gravestones of 2 brothers, one a confederate, and the other a Union solider, faced each other one last time.

  9. I love the “tombstone tourist” label, Janis. I do enjoy cemeteries but if I didn’t, I’d want to enjoy them just so I could claim to be a tombstone tourist.
    The statuary is fabulous. Thanks, as always, for shining a light on another interesting spot in the world.

    1. Ha! I was a bit relieved to see that “we” have an actual name… I didn’t feel so odd 🙃. The statuary was fabulous at this particular cemetery… both the traditional angels and the home made alters. They were very personal, not cookie-cutter at all.

      1. I too can understand why you would find them so interesting. I think I just have too much of a vivid imagination to linger too long and we have been to a few around the world!!!

  10. My mother used to be an architectural historian, specialized in the American colonial period. She did her graduate work while I was in elementary and let me skip a lot of school to go with her on adventures. In addition to accompanying her to dig sites of old factories and mills (which were cool and fun and sometimes her advisor let me keep a marble or bit of slate, if I found it), I also got dragged along to more old graveyards than I ever care to remember.

    “MooOOOOooom,” I’d whine. “We’re walking on DEAD PEOPLE.”
    “Shhh. They don’t mind.”

    Nowadays, I get the appeal of historical cemeteries — for other people. Never quite got over that early imprinting, myself!

    1. I figure that as long as I am respectful, and don’t walk right on top of them, they won’t mind very much. I can understand how your early experiences may now influence your opinion about cemeteries, though.

  11. Yes you are correct that you’re not alone. The Cuban cemetery reminds me of one I saw recently in Puerto Rico. Oh, if cemeteries could talk.

  12. My gosh, Janis, these cemeteries look like mini cities! That first photo, the angels look so sad and despondent as they sit there. I like walking around old cemeteries, too. We have a lot of historical ones in the Gold country of the Sierra foothills. So fascinating to read headstones of people who were born in Boston, but died in California, for example. Very cool!!

  13. I also find old cemeteries to be fascinating! So much history, and so many stories. It also makes me realize that we are all just one link in the story….

  14. You had me at ‘tombstone tourist’! I love that phrase. Great post….which has given me something else to add to my list when visiting new areas.

  15. Fascinating post, thank you! My husband loves visiting cemeteries and the most beautiful one we have visited so far was the one in the center of Buenos Aires~ Do you know of it? Beautiful sculptures somewhat akin to these. Love your photographs! Great post!


  16. I did visit the St. Louis #3 cemetery in New Orleans – simply amazing. I also came across a small graveyard in the middle of nowhere when I was visiting my nieces in Indiana. They were living out in the country at the time, and on a walk down a random country road, I found a small graveyard filled with headstones of soldiers from the Civil War – which was so astonishing to me. A little over a year ago, I made a quick trip to Northern California to visit family, and my uncle gave me an incredible and wonderful gift. He took me/us to the cemetery where both of my father’s grandparents were buried, as well as his parents, and what appeared to be dozens of grave markers of my great-grandfathers family. I took as many pictures as I could to capture names and dates, but then one of the ‘caretakers’ came along and chased us out. (Okay – it was well past their closing time!) Really a wonderful memory!

    1. It sounds like I definitely need to get back to New Orleans! Cemeteries that are rich in family history are interesting to visit too; I’m glad you had that opportunity. I visited an old cemetery in upstate New York where it seemed that half the tomb stones had the same last name on them.

  17. I do understand your love of cemeteries. I think, in a way, it’s like my enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of reading obituaries. I like imagining the people who lived and died, what their life was like, why they died so young (or lived so long), what their life was REALLY like (as opposed to the accolades always expressed in the newspaper). But a cemetery adds an aura of mystique. Where I live in New England, I walk around the beautiful hillsides of gravestones engraved from the early 1800s. The names are sweet; some have a tiny infant grave next to the mother’s, and you realize how many little ones didn’t survive a century ago. I feel like I’m in another era when I walk these gravesites, and when I return, I appreciate what I have, but reminisce about those who lived before.

    1. Old cemeteries hold the history of a time when the challenges of life were so different. The cemetery in Oaxaca (also the one we visited in Cuba) was especially beautiful because everything wasn’t in neat little rows, all headstones matching. It was a photographer’s dream!

      You are lucky to live in a place that is full of history… and old graveyards.

  18. I share your delight in old cemeteries and would so love to be in Oaxaca to see San Miguel blanketed in flowers! Love your shots – especially the composition in the first with the three weeping angels.

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