Nothing like a cemetery to enliven a trip

City College students learn about the history of the Belmont Mausoleum from historian Susan Olsen at The Woodlawn Cemetery

Cemetery tourism opens the door to cultural tourism.

Lori Tripoli of North Salem, NY, weaves cemetery visits into both business and pleasure trips. “I like visiting graveyards to learn about history in a slightly unconventional way,” says Tripoli, an environmental educator.

Wandering through a cemetery or taking a guided tour allows us to learn about different cultural traditions, changing attitudes about life and death over the years, and to reflect on the unique stories of the people buried there. Many cemetery visitors say the experience can be profoundly spiritual.

Loren Rhoads of San Francisco, author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel has visited so many cemeteries and graveyards over the years that she’s lost count. “I’ve easily visited hundreds,” she says. “Before our daughter was born, my husband and I made an East Coast tour where we visited 17 cemeteries in 11 days. On a good day, I can visit three.” 

Who are cemetery tourists?

Mausoleum of oil tycoon William Avery Rockefeller, older brother of John D. Rockefeller at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Mausoleum of oil tycoon William Avery Rockefeller, older brother of John D. Rockefeller at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Cemetery tourists run the gamut—from people who happen upon old church graveyards and wander through them; to travelers who incorporate not-to-be-missed cemeteries (e.g. the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial or the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in France) into their vacation plans; to true “cemetery enthusiasts” (alternatively called taphophiles or grave hunters) like Rhoads, whose interests run broader and deeper.

“A surprising number of people visit cemeteries,” remarks Rhoads. “Their interests range from genealogy to photography, history, art, iconography, landscaping, architecture, bird-watching, gardening and restoration,” she says. She points out that many park-like cemeteries with magnificent trees and plantings serve as arboretums and wildlife refuges. Some offer breathtaking views of mountains, rivers and streams.

With few exceptions, cemeteries have traditionally welcomed the public with open gates and free admission—even visitors who have no friends or family interred on the grounds. Many offer maps or paper guides that highlight notable graves as well as noteworthy statues, monuments, mausoleums, chapels, or architectural structures. Nearby residents and tourists alike appreciate the serenity of these sanctuaries, especially those who like to walk or run in a setting where they can commune with nature, much like in a public park.

“Tourism gives us an opportunity to showcase the art, culture and historical significance of our cemetery to a wider audience,” says David L. Ison, Executive Director of The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY. In essence, visits to these “outdoor museums” help redress the tarnished image of burial grounds as being ghoulish, scary and macabre.

Many cemeteries offer guided tours led by volunteer and paid docents, lectures, concerts, art exhibits and light shows, and hold scheduled holiday, seasonal and special events. They also collaborate with outside tour companies and provide outreach to local schools, civic organizations, scholars, and senior citizen groups.

Not only does this visibility help market burial space to impressed visitors but it also increases tourism to a region, with visitors more likely to explore nearby (non-cemetery) attractions.

A sea change in cemetery tourism

Screenshot of the Woodlawn Cemetery App
Screenshot of the Woodlawn Cemetery App

Advances in technology over the past two decades have simultaneously popularized cemetery tourism and enhanced the experience for visitors. Tourists are finding cemetery visits listed among the top attractions on TripAdvisor, both in the U.S. and abroad. Many have extensive websites, Facebook pages, and legions of social media followers.

Find A Grave, created by taphophile Jim Tipton in 1995, is a searchable, crowdsourced (and thus, prone to some errors) online database of 132 million grave records at cemeteries in more than 200 countries. Users can contribute information or use the website at no cost to search for graves of relatives or famous people, including pop culture icons. Some entries include GPS coordinates on Google Maps, and many display photos of headstones and epitaphs. The website, which was acquired by in 2013, also has a free mobile app.

A number of cemeteries have developed smartphone apps or audio tours that enable users to locate gravesites during a visit. For example, by downloading a free self-guided tour at The Woodlawn Cemetery, jazz aficionados can find the graves of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet or other luminaries buried at cemetery.

Using GPS technology, the app guides them to within ten feet of each grave, and allows them to download relevant Wikipedia entries, videos and/or music on their smartphone. The app includes other thematic tours, too, focusing on architectural treasures, black history, civic leaders, civil war heroes, entertainers, memorable women, significant sculptures and more.

“The idea of cemetery tourism may seem new and shocking but actually cemeteries have been sites of pilgrimage from the beginning,” writes Loren Rhoads. With the growing number of cremations and green burials, cemeteries will continue to evolve and change as preservationists and cemetery tourists protect and honor past traditions.

Dramatic view looking towards the Hudson River from Revolutionary War monument at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Dramatic view looking towards the Hudson River from Revolutionary War monument at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

This post is a version of an article written by Irene S. Levine published in the Sunday Travel Section of the Chicago Tribune online and is scheduled to appear in print on July 26, 2015.

The feature included two other related pieces, 6 Great Cemeteries for Tourism and Tips for Visiting Cemeteries as a Tourist, which are also reprinted on More Time To Travel.

The feature story also appeared in the Hartford Courant, the SunSentinel (Miami), the Orlando Sentinel, The Virginia Gazette, and Tidewater Review.

Also on More Time to Travel:

Visit Loren Rhoad’s website for more information about cemetery tourism.

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