Kalin’s Chronicles: Touring Famous Cemeteries

Tomb of Eva PeronAs we celebrate Veteran’s Day, many in the United States will visit the gravesites of fallen soldiers. But some people find cemeteries creepy. I used to feel that way until I took an official tour of one, years ago. Now whenever I visit a city, I never turn down a chance to tour a cemetery. They are beautiful, peaceful places where you can learn about the people and the history of a city. I’ve chosen four of my favorite cemetery tours to share with you – along with some of the famous women who lie there.

Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina is where the body of the infamous Eva “Evita” Peron lies. The cemeteries most famous resident, Peron served as the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952. On the tour, hear the engrossing story about how her body was shipped to Italy and then Spain, before it was returned to Argentina for burial. Though she was supposed to represent the working class of Argentina, she’s buried where most of the city’s wealthiest deceased lie. Today her tomb is the most visited in the cemetery, and is lavished with flowers left by visitors (including myself) from around the world. The cemetery’s beautiful architecture and sculptures alone are worth the visit.  (Image: Burial Site of Eva Peron)

Because of its above-ground tombs, Recoleta reminds me of Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District of New Orleans. It’s one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions. New Orleans is not only known as a party city but also as a mysterious and eerie one, thanks to its voodoo history and vampire books by the city’s famous author, Ann Rice. In fact, Lafayette Cemetery was the setting for the book and movie, Interview with the Vampire. Since the city is below sea level, all graves must be above ground, which gives the 19th century cemetery a Gothic look that’s perfect for Halloween tours. It’s here that you’ll find the tomb of “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau, a free-born “Creole” woman who was allegedly feared and respected by New Orleanians of all races during the 19th century.

I took my very first cemetery tour at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. This historic cemetery was built in the mid 1800’s and was a popular site for Sunday carriage rides and picnics. After hearing this on my tour, I realized that cemeteries aren’t to be feared at all. Oakland still has sections that speak to the city’s history of segregation, such as the separate sections for Union and Confederate soldiers, the Jewish section, and the Colored section. It’s here where you’ll find the gravesite of Carrie Steele Logan, an ex-slave who founded the first African American orphanage – The Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, in Atlanta. Another more famous woman buried at Oakland is Margaret Mitchell, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel, Gone with the Wind. Along with walking tours, the cemetery holds a “Sunday in the Park” Victorian street festival every October. And to show how the city has changed over the decades, Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African American mayor is buried here – not in the Colored section, but almost at the very entrance of the cemetery — with his requested view of the city’s skyline. I love the beauty and history of this cemetery so much that I’ve joined other Atlantans during daily walks in the cemetery as my morning meditation.

Another Georgia gem is Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. This 18th century cemetery became famous after the book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The movie opens with a beautiful sweeping shot of the cemetery by the edge of the Wilmington River. And it is here that the real-life protagonist in Midnight, Jim Williams, is buried. There’s something about the Spanish moss-draped oak trees that give this cemetery an eerie feel, as if you can feel the spirits of the dead blowing in the wind. But there’s nothing to fear but your own imagination. One of the famous women in this cemetery is not a woman at all, but a girl – a “bird girl.” The Bird Girl statue stood over one of the graves in the cemetery and was used on the cover of the Midnight book — a replica was used for the intro and close of the movie. With her arms out holding up two bird feeders, many people compare the statue to the scales of justice. The Bird Girl became so famous that tourists began flocking to Bonaventure and trampling on the Trosdal family plot she stood on, so the family had her removed from the cemetery. But if you take a Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bus tour, you’ll make a stop at the Telfair Museum of Art where the statue now resides.

Cemeteries are outdoor museums, and shouldn’t be feared as places of death but respected as places that honor the people and history of a city. So take a cemetery tour on your next trip. It’s a unique way to learn more about the culture of your destination. And remember: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness – Mark Twain.

Kalin Thomas is Women at Forty’s Travel & Leisure Editor. She is also Senior Writer/Photographer for SoulOfAmerica. Before starting her own multimedia company, Kalin spent 17 years at CNN where she won several awards for her work as producer/correspondent for CNN’s weekly travel program, CNN TravelNow. She is currently writing a book about her travels. For more information on Kalin, visit www.seetheworldproductions.com.