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.
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.
Picnic baskets in hand or not (I’d probably go with not), visiting cemeteries can help bring to life a sense of the local spirit of a place. As historian Lisa Murray has argued, their statuary and monuments form a kind of public sculpture park, their epitaphs offering a museum-like catalogue of people past.
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 Victoria 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 farther 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 young so many of those buried were when they’d died.
At this point the younger man, Harsha, piped up to welcome us and introduce his grandfather, Charles Carmichael, the cemetery caretaker. Eloquent and knowledgeable, Mr Carmichael had amassed an encyclopaedic grasp of the cemetery and its inscriptions during his two decades of working there. He led us around, reciting by heart even those inscriptions that had faded (they were fortunately recorded prior).
Hearing the personal stories and tragedies of those beneath the gravestones — some 195 British nationals who’d died far afield here in Ceylon, as it was then known — gave an unexpectedly profound insight into the on-the-ground experience of colonialism. Though admittedly far from a valid scientific sample, 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, how little they belonged here. Elephants, cobras, malaria-borne mosquitoes, the climate and of course the local Kandyan insurgents all played their part.
One Captain James McGlashan, described by Mr Carmichael as ‘hero of the heroes’, 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 intriguingly, we learnt 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 and bandits took from the rich, gave to the poor, and often targeted the colonial administration. He was later hanged for his troubles.
On our way out, 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. Leaving behind the shade of the cemetery’s trees, already we could hear the throbbing traditional drums of a nearby cultural show. We passed white-clad worshippers, the vibrantly patterned turbo style buses that are a mainstay on Sri Lankan roads, and a tout or two; the heat and hustle seemed to welcome us back into ‘normal’, vibrant Kandy. I 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, most passengers were migrants looking to start a new life in the colonies. Disaster struck when the fog lifted only to reveal that the ship was too close to the coast. The captain tried to clear the coast, but it was too late. The Loch Ard struck a rocky reef at nearby Muttonbird Island and sank within a quarter-hour.
There were just two survivors, both 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 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.
Just one of approximately 640 wrecks strewn along the aptly named Shipwreck Coast, 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: me being me, I later researched the couple and it turns out our namesakes weren’t victims of the Loch Ard after all but rather were buried in the cemetery in the twentieth century.)
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.
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 along 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.”
Any visitor can expect to find that the dog cemetery puts an otherwise nice but relatively unremarkable Wheatbelt town, some 230 kilometres east of Perth, on the proverbial map. It’s a memorable, quirky and surprisingly profound place.
But fellow dog lovers, beware: do bring tissues. At Corrigin Dog Cemetery it may take neither a funeral, nor even a personal connection to those buried, to make you cry. It’ll take you right back to when you lost your own childhood dog. As a self-confessed crazy dog lady, I found myself suddenly needing sunglasses for reasons altogether apart from the glare, and may or may not have hugged my own ‘fur-babies’ that little bit tighter upon my return.
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 especially 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. (Or lived.)
The first time I saw my bisnonno (great grandfather), ‘Nonno Nino’, I was 20, he was 101, and it was after 10pm. Even though my uncle and I had had a late flight, 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, via my uncle’s translations of the Sicilian dialect, how much he missed my mum and her other siblings.
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 from which we’d depart, I waved back, my other hand clutching the handwritten letter he’d scrawled to my mum in Sicilian. I knew that 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 to England, 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, 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 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 to this lovable character, or else risk missing the flight.
Just as we were about to give up, sure enough, not far from the entrance my teenage sister spotted it: the final resting place of this forebear I’d known only too briefly. Rest in peace, Nonno Nino – ‘Sarina’.
Have you ever visited a cemetery on your travels? Or other equally unlikely yet fascinating hidden gems?