Vampires, plague victims, ghosts, golems, and the gate to Hell: some of the best stories are buried in cemeteries. These are a few of my favorites. All of these burial grounds are open to visitors.
Chinkoji Temple, Kyoto, Japan
This small Buddhist temple graveyard stands just south of Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood. The plaque at its gate says, “Kyoto’s Bon Festival, the Buddhist observance honoring the spirits of ancestors, begins with the tolling of this temple’s bell. The area is called ‘Rokudo-no-tsujii,’ or ‘the place where this world and the other world meet.’”
Chinkoji Temple, founded in 836 AD, was home to scholar Ono no Takamura (802–852), a calligrapher poet who served Emperor Saga. Takamura was so eloquent in his descriptions of Hell that he was believed to be an emissary from Enma, the King of Hell. Legend holds that at night Takamura would climb into the well at Rokudo Chinkoji and descend to the underworld to help Enma judge the dead. In the morning, the scholar would climb back out, then go serve the Emperor.
Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic
In 1597, Judah Loew ben Bezalel became chief rabbi of the Prague ghetto. Records survive of the visit Rabbi Loew made to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who funded research into the alchemical transformation of lead into gold. Rabbi Loew was said to be one of only four men, post-Adam, to see the Garden of Eden. While there, he was granted the shem, the secret name of God, which can create life. Later, when the ghetto was menaced by Christian fanatics, the Rabbi created a champion out of the muddy banks of the Vltava River. This artificial man protected the Jews until something went wrong one night. To stop the golem’s rampage, Loew had to rip the shem from behind the golem’s teeth. The Rabbi is buried in this cemetery.
Old Dutch Burying Ground, Tarrytown, New York
A plaque in the Old Dutch Burying Ground describes the place as “one of America’s oldest cemeteries,” containing Dutch tenant farmers, Revolutionary War soldiers, and people who inspired the characters of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Although the Crane family is buried there, none of the surviving tombstones name Ichabod. Near them lies Catriena Van Tessel, who died November 10, 1706. You can purchase a self-guided tour from Sleepy Hollow Gifts or rent an iPad tour at the church. There is no grave for the Headless Horseman.
Paris Catacombs, Paris, France
Concurrent with the reconstruction of Paris in the 1780s, a movement gained momentum to clean out the city’s churchyards, some of which had been in use since the Middle Ages. Accounts of the period speak of pestilential hellholes, jammed with liquefying cadavers. One report claimed that the notorious Cimetière des Innocents broke through an adjoining wall to spill corpses into an apartment building. Fearing epidemics, the city fathers voted to excavate the medieval Parisian graveyards.
Beginning at dusk, workmen emptied the charnel pits by bonfire light. It was impossible to even consider individualizing the remains. After the bones were loaded onto carts, priests chanting the funeral service followed them to an underground quarry. After the quarry was filled in 1786, the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the residues of approximately six million people. For the last two centuries, the ossuary has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris.
Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara Falls, Canada
The bloodiest battle of the War of 1812, which Canadians consider their Gettysburg, took place in this churchyard in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on July 25, 1814. American forces repeatedly attacked Lt. General Gordon Drummond’s men, who held the hilltop. After six hours of fighting, the American invasion of Canada collapsed.
Drummond’s men buried 1600 corpses in trenches in the old pioneer cemetery. Twenty-two British soldiers lie beneath a monument that stands at the crest of the hill. Other soldiers, mostly unknown, remain buried around the cemetery. Some of them haunt the cemetery at night.
St. Philomena’s Churchyard, Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Molokai
The first case of leprosy documented in Hawaii was found on the island of Kauai in 1835. It’s believed that Chinese, imported to work in the sugarcane fields, brought the disease with them, but that’s impossible to confirm when whalers and missionaries brought so many other diseases to the vulnerable Hawaiians. Since there was no cure for leprosy, its victims were exiled to Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula. A 2000-foot cliff on the southern side of the peninsula penned them in. Since the peninsula was surrounded by such rough seas that ships could land only rarely, sufferers were often thrown overboard and told to swim.
After the discovery of sulfone drugs, survivors were allowed to leave the quarantine area. Many chose to live out their lives in the only homes they’d ever known. The area became a National Park in 1980.
St. Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans, Louisiana
Saint Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans. Its most famous resident may or may not be Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The 1897 death date on her tomb is not the famous Marie’s, but is closer to her daughter Marie’s. Many people believe the remains of the two Maries were switched between Saint Louis #1 and its younger sibling, Saint Louis Cemetery #2. Robert Florence, author of City of the Dead, suggests that Marie Laveau’s bones, wherever they once lay, were cleared out of her vault after her entombment, since “bones are one of the most popular forms of gris-gris.”
For many years, tour guides encouraged visitors to ask Marie Laveau for a favor and scrawl a trio of Xs on the Glapion tomb. The Catholic diocese, which oversees the graveyard, and the Glapion descendants consider that graffiti to be vandalism.
Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California
The city of Oakland, California, grew quickly after the Gold Rush. Its pioneer cemetery wasn’t large enough for the burgeoning metropolis, so its wealthier citizens purchased a site that climbed the Oakland Hills and afforded views of the bay and San Francisco in the distance. Since the cemetery’s history spans from the rural cemetery movement through the modern memorial park, its family tombs range from Egyptian Revival through Romanesque to Gothic. Grave statuary includes everything from lambs to little girls to angels of exquisite loveliness. One of the saddest residents is Elizabeth Short, who came to be known as the Black Dahlia. In January 1947, her murderer cut her body in half before dumping it in a vacant lot. The killer was never found. Elizabeth was buried in a simple grave in this lovely cemetery.
Highgate Cemetery, London
In 1968, this overgrown Victorian cemetery featured in Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. The following year, the British Psychic and Occult Society heard tales of a tall black apparition wandering amidst the graves after dark. When the Society investigated the cemetery, it discovered widespread vandalism: “vaults broken open and coffins literally smashed apart. A vault on the main pathway had been forced open and the coffins inside set afire.” The Society decided to perform a séance in the cemetery at midnight on August 17, 1970. After the circle was cast and the séance began, the police arrived and society members scattered. More information about the vampire hunting is here: https://cemeterytravel.com/2016/09/20/a-restless-wind-is-blowing-through-highgate/.
St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City
After surviving the fire of 1776 and years of acid rain, St. Paul’s Chapel escaped destruction once again when the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11, 2001. Although its graveyard was drifted with debris from the towers, the chapel served as a shelter for 14,000 volunteers who slept in its pews as they combed through the wreckage for victims. The Chapel continues to stand as a monument to the rescue workers.
A sign in the churchyard relates the story of George Frederick Cooke, an actor best known in life for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III. After his death in 1812, Cooke’s skull was stolen from his coffin. The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries reports that “Cooke is said to wander around St. Paul’s Churchyard, looking for his head … Some believe that his skull continues to be used in stagings of Hamlet.”
Cemeteries are full of fascinating stories, of which these are only a few. Go explore your local boneyard and see what kind of spooky stories you can turn up.
Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She was the editor of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. She blogs at CemeteryTravel.com.