Where better to unearth the local spirit(s) of a place than a graveyard? From the Great Ocean Road to a remnant of colonial-era Sri Lanka, here are four enlivening cemeteries.
Chances are when you arrive in a new destination, the local cemetery isn’t exactly the first place you’re itching to explore. What’s so fun and exciting about… well, the dead? (Said no history lover ever.)
Sure, there are famous cemeteries around the world well frequented by tourists — even beyond taphophiles and/or family historians. But, to many, cemeteries are just dull or depressing by day and downright creepy by night. Unsurprisingly, many small local graveyards in particular are at their liveliest during funerals.*
But visiting cemeteries can help bring to life a sense of the local spirit of a destination. And they’re often surprisingly scenic, atmospheric places in their own right. As historian Lisa Murray has argued, their statuary and monuments form a kind of public sculpture park. Their epitaphs offer a sometimes surprisingly informative museum-like catalogue of people past (/passed…).
For the curious traveller, the average graveyard is alive with stories and insights into local life and, yes, death. Here are a handful of cemeteries — from Australia to Sri Lanka to Sicily — that proved both enlightening and enlivening for me.
The colonial-era remnant: Kandy Garrison Cemetery, Sri Lanka
Right in the heart of Kandy, a sacred city in central Sri Lanka, you’ll find a quiet, shady spot that at first glance looks like an incongruous little slice of England — but for the occasional sounds of monkeys and a gleaming white stupa visible further up the nearby hill.
Entering the British Garrison Cemetery, as it’s formally known, we found it empty but for two men, a slight 60-something and a 21-year-old, who watched us closely. Feeling vaguely like we were intruding on some kind of precious, forgotten place, we cautiously surveyed the gravestones. And were soon struck by how many of those buried here had died so young.
At this point the younger man, Harsha, piped up to welcome us and introduce his grandfather, Charles Carmichael, the cemetery caretaker. Mr Carmichael had worked at the cemetery for 20 years and had amassed an encyclopaedic grasp of the cemetery and its inscriptions. He led us around, reciting several inscriptions by heart. Even those that had faded (fortunately they were recorded prior).
Some 195 British nationals are buried at the Kandy Garrison Cemetery. Hearing the personal stories and tragedies of those who lay at rest here gave an unexpectedly profound insight into the on-the-ground experience of colonialism in British Ceylon, as it was then known — from the colonisers’ perspective.
The varied causes of deaths cited on the tombstones made it seem as though the entire country had conspired to show the English occupiers how ill-adapted they were for this place so far from home, how little they belonged here. Cobras, elephants, malaria-bearing mosquitoes, the climate and of course the formidable local Kandyan resistance all played their part.
One Captain James McGlashan, described by Mr Carmichael as ‘hero of the heroes’, was the first to be buried at the cemetery. He had survived famous battles such as Waterloo unscathed, only to pay no heed to warnings against malaria. Such is the chauvinism of colonialism. As a brochure by the Friends of the British Garrison Cemetery recounts:
With reckless disregard of precautions he walked from Trincomalee, drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing; not surprisingly he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.
Most intriguing of all, Mr Carmichael told us of the legendary yet controversial Utuwankande Sura Saradiel, Sri Lanka’s answer to Robin Hood. From the 1850s to the early 1860s, Saradiel and his gang of highwaymen took from the rich, gave to the poor, and often targeted the colonial administration. Stories abound of the daring exploits and lucky escapes of this notorious outlaw. He was eventually captured, however, and hanged for his troubles. In the words of the Daily FT:
…he paid the ultimate price for taking on the colonial rulers, which in turn ensured him a place in Lankan folklore as a hero.
On our way out of the cemetery, we thanked Mr Carmichael and his unofficial apprentice; young Harsha had proudly told us his plans to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as caretaker of the place.
Leaving behind the shade of the cemetery’s trees, already we could hear the throbbing traditional drums of a nearby cultural performance. We passed white-clad worshippers, the vibrantly patterned turbo style buses that are an unmissable mainstay on Sri Lankan roads, and a tout or two. The heat and hustle away from the shady trees seemed to welcome us back into ‘normal’, vibrant Kandy.
I just wished, and still do, I’d found a counterpoint to the Garrison Cemetery, to learn more about the lives, deaths and suffering of those who lived under colonial rule.
The scene of a tragedy: Loch Ard Cemetery, Victoria
Location, location. This cemetery is set amidst coastal heathland perched atop cliffs above Loch Ard Gorge, one of the most impressive stretches along Australia’s famously scenic Great Ocean Road.** Yet it remains every bit the quiet, restful place you’d expect of a nineteenth-century burial ground.
And yet the tranquility belies its tragic beginnings. One foggy night in June 1878, a ship called the Loch Ard waded through these waters. Of the 54 onboard, many passengers were migrants looking to start a new life in the colonies.
Disaster struck when the fog and sea mist lifted only to reveal that the ship was too close to the rugged coastal cliffs. The captain tried to clear the coast, but it was too late. The Loch Ard struck a rocky reef at nearby Muttonbird Island. The ship sank within 15 minutes.
There were just two survivors. Both happened to be teenagers: midshipman Tom, and Eva Carmichael, an Irish immigrant, who clung to a spar for hours before being washed into the nearby gorge. The pair took refuge in a cave before Tom managed to scale the towering limestone cliffs — no mean feat — and seek help.
The bodies of Eva’s mother and sister were among the few victims recovered. A small burial area was chosen atop the cliffs and, in the words of a plaque on site, the victims’ remains were:
… placed in coffins made from timber washed up in Loch Ard Gorge and buried in this cemetery. A cross of spars from the wreckage was erected over the graves and this was later replaced with headstones.
Having lost her entire family to the tragedy, Eva returned to Ireland a few months later.
Mind-boggingly, this is just one of approximately 640 wrecks strewn along the aptly named Shipwreck Coast. But the Loch Ard’s story particularly resonates for the modern-day visitor in part thanks to the cemetery’s tangible reminder of its victims.
Perhaps most evocative for my visit at least was finding a tombstone of a couple named ‘Leonard’ and ‘Sarah’ — the same first names as my partner and I. Goosebumps. (A happy ending, though [or as happy as you could expect in a graveyard]: me being me, I later researched the couple and it turns out our namesakes weren’t victims of the Loch Ard after all. They were buried in the cemetery in the 20th century.)
The quirky yet heartbreaking: Corrigin Dog Cemetery, WA
‘A dog cemetery?’, I thought. ‘Pssh, first “puppuccinos” and dog psychics; now this.’
But when I pulled up outside the Corrigin Dog Cemetery on the outskirts of town, past the kelpie statue that stands guard at the entrance, and started wandering around the 80-odd unevenly sized burial plots, it was the polar opposite of bourgeois conceit that struck me.
It was in the flowers, little statuettes, crosses and even some plush toys — tangible reminders of the mark these clearly beloved local Fidos, Rexes and Bellas left upon their owners long after they lay at rest. It lingered between the lines of the memories and messages etched on the inscriptions, stoic and heartfelt alike. It’s the striking sense that the people of this town get it: how indebted humans are as a species to those four-legged family members we could never hope to deserve.
According to Monument Australia, the cemetery was established in the 1970s, thanks to a dog named Strike:
In 1975, when Paddy Wright’s dog Strike died, this site was the softest earth he could find to bury his faithful friend. Many other people began to bury their dogs at the same site. Mr Alan Henderson began putting head stones on the graves, for the fee of a bag of cement. He also began to decorate the grave sites and headstones with decorative pieces he would find fossicking at the tip. He would incorporate the dog’s name and the owner’s name in the headstones.
The dog cemetery puts the otherwise nice but sorta unremarkable Wheatbelt town of Corrigin, some 230 kilometres east of Perth, on the proverbial map. It’s a memorable, quirky and surprisingly profound place.
But fellow dog people, beware: you’ll wanna bring tissues… and sunglasses. Corrigin Dog Cemetery will take you right back to when you lost your own childhood dog. As a self-confessed crazy dog lady I… needed a moment. Or five.
The personal connection: Spadafora, Italy
It wasn’t history, beauty or quirkiness that drew me to the burial place of Spadafora, but rather its inhabitants. This fishing village in Sicily’s northeast is pleasant enough, with its humble castle, decent if oddly tractor-filled beach, and particularly delicious arancini. But for me the main appeal of Spadafora, and the reason I’ve gone twice now, is that it’s in my blood. My mother was born here and it remains the town where the vast majority of my maternal relatives live to this day.
The first time I saw my bisnonno (great grandfather), known to me as Nonno Nino, I was 20, he was 101, and it was after 10pm. Even though my uncle and I had had a late flight to Sicily from London, followed by a bus then a train to Spadafora, I simply couldn’t wait until the next day to meet Nonno Nino. He promptly christened me ‘Sarina’, which sort of equates to ‘little Sarah’, and told me — through my uncle’s translations of the Sicilian dialect — how much he missed my mum and her siblings down in Australia.
Over the days, card games and chocolate croissants that followed, I was not disappointed; despite the language barrier it was clear he was a real character, every bit as cheeky and ‘switched on’ at 100+ as I’d long been told.
The last time I saw Nonno Nino was just three days later. He farewelled us from just outside his doorway with a funny little wave, fingers scrunching into his palm. Trudging towards the bus stop ready for our trip to the airport and back to London, I waved back, my other hand clutching the handwritten letter he’d scrawled to his granddaughter, my mum, in Sicilian. I knew that even with those magical Mediterranean centenarian genes*** on our side it was unlikely I’d get to see him again.
Cut to the end of my next visit to Spadafora three years later. This time I was accompanied by my immediate family on a Europe ‘homecoming’ trip of sorts, the aim being to visit my parents’ respective hometowns and meet our relatives. Before leaving for the airport for our flight out of Italy, we wanted to pay our respects to our Sicilian relatives who’d passed — and above all, for me at least, to Nonno Nino, the tiny yet larger-than-life figure whom sadly my siblings had never got to meet.
I wandered around several levels of the semi-outdoor mausoleum, with its stacked rows of crypts like a morbid sort of filing cabinet. Photos of the deceased, some slightly faded, accompanied many crypt inscriptions. Within minutes I found my other bisnonno, my maternal great grandfather, who’d sadly died a year or so before my first trip to Sicily. Several other familiar names jumped out;**** my mum gave the rundown of ‘who’s who’ and how they were all related.
There was just one problem. Where was Nonno Nino?
We paced up and down the cemetery increasingly frantically, scared we’d have to leave without getting to pay our respects, or else risk missing our flight.
Just as we were about to give up, sure enough, not far from the entrance my little sister spotted it: the final resting place of this forebear I’d known only too briefly.
Rest in peace, Nonno Nino – ‘Sarina’.
*This wasn’t always the case. In the Victorian era, it was not unheard of for hundreds to flock to cemeteries of a weekend for promenading, socialising and even picnicking amongst the gravestones — making for a far more, ahem, alive place overall as far as final resting places go.
**What’s more, beyond its tourist fame, Great Ocean Road is itself a monument to the dead, albeit on a massive scale. Carved into the rugged rock of the winding coastline, the road was built by some 3000 returned servicemen after World War I as a memorial to those who’d never come home.
***/ diet / whatever’s in the water / pasta sauce there.
****Statistically speaking, my relatives probably make up like 3/5 of that cemetery. Sicilian families are enormous.