Cemeteries and tombs - a travel guide - Rusty Compass travel blog

Cemeteries and tombs - a travel guide

| 29 May 2021
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29 May 2021

Cemeteries and tombs have been a big part of my travelling life. From my first international travels in the 80s till now, I've made a point of wandering through old cemeteries wherever I find them. From the UK to India to Vietnam and Australia, they're goldmines of history and humanity.

On a wet, cold afternoon a few weeks ago, I stopped in at Camperdown Cemetery in Sydney's inner western suburb of Newtown. For a time after opening in 1848, it was Sydney's main cemetery. It's one of the most atmospheric cemeteries I know in Australia. It was especially beautiful on a bleak afternoon.

While I was there, it occurred to me that visiting cemeteries has been a big part of my travelling life. I recalled my first travels outside Australia back in the 1980s, and a visit to Trinity Church graveyard in New York. I discovered for the first time a city previously known as New Amsterdam. A few months later, I was visiting the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery in London. How can you not? His ideas have been some of most potent in two centuries.

Camperdown cemetery's grounds are wild but cared for. It's rundown but loved. Birds flock to it. The dog owners of Newtown love to walk their hounds there. It's part of the community, a few hundred metres off busy King St and next to a popular park. It's an escape and a breathing space.

Keepin' it real. Camperdown Cemetery, Newtown
Photo: Mark Bowyer Keepin' it real. Camperdown Cemetery, Newtown

When I first travelled to Vietnam in the 1990s, the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi were already a mandatory shrine to the communist struggle against US backed south Vietnamese forces - before they morphed into a theme park. More shocking than the tunnels on that trip, was the stop at a simple cemetery nearby. Hundreds of small simple graves were marked "liet si", which means martyr. It was one of the first words of Vietnamese I learned. The impact of that stop was profound. I've been to many other Vietnam graveyards since.

Cemeteries have helped me make sense of people and places. Neglected graves tell you something. Perfectly manicured graves tell you something else. Australia invests hundreds of millions in World War One memorials in Europe. While the oldest European cemetery in the country, St John's at Parramatta, with more than 50 First Fleeters buried in its grounds, is in a shameful state.

But sometimes neglect is what makes a cemetery special.

Colonial cemeteries are a strange thing to see in Asia. Nowhere are they more curious than in India. The South Park Cemetery in the middle of Kolkata must be one of the most beautifully bizarre cemeteries in the world - with graves dating back to the early 18th century.

South Park St Cemetery, Kolkata, India
Photo: Mark Bowyer South Park St Cemetery, Kolkata, India
St John's Church graveyard, Kolkata
Photo: Mark Bowyer St John's Church graveyard, Kolkata

There's something raw about graves - especially grand old graves. There can be no more perfect affirmation of our equality in death - no matter the grandeur of the tomb. Sometimes the grandeur of the tomb only serves to diminish the perception of the occupant, or demonstrate their diminished standing in contemporary times of new heroes. The Nguyen tombs in Hue Vietnam are perfect examples of this - especially the tomb of Gia Long, the first Nguyen Emperor.

Gia Long's tomb, Hue
Photo: Mark Bowyer Gia Long's tomb, Hue

Gia Long's tomb, Hue
Photo: Mark Bowyer Gia Long's tomb, Hue

Check out the video about some of the cemeteries I remember.

Every cemetery is a connection to a piece of history and a little human fragment of that history. I don't find them morbid. But they are moving places to explore. And, like Camperdown Cemetery near where I'm living, they can have a strange beauty too.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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