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Image: Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Mass.
Island Road Images / Alamy
The first "garden cemetery" in the United States is also one of its most beautiful. Buckminster Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and B.F. Skinner are among the scores of legendary Americans resting at Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Mass.
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updated 10/30/2008 3:32:17 PM ET 2008-10-30T19:32:17

Every major city has some kind of grandiose graveyard. We often stumble upon these “cities of the dead” in our travels — usually a centuries-old swath of walled greenery and limestone on the outskirts of the city, thick leafy trees droop over mismatched rickety headstones and larger-than-life sculptures of angels beckon us in. In the 19th century, before the age of the public park, cemeteries doubled as leisurely places for families to spend the day relaxing and eating in the tranquil landscape.

And while the park has become the de rigueur destination for outdoor leisure, the unlikely allure of the cemetery persists. But graveyard-goers have a different motivation: to dive in to an atmosphere that’s both woebegone and placid, a place that offers a harmonious blend of nature and art, history and horticulture all wrapped up in a contained space. And if that’s not enough, a visit to our experts’ favorite cemeteries ensures a celebrity sighting — in the form of a gravestone, of course — just about every time.

The ultimate cemetery as a tourist destination is Paris’ Pere Lachaise. Most travelers put this 118-acre graveyard on their “must see” itinerary because of its famous inhabitants: Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Alice B. Toklas, Richard Wright, and, of course, Jim Morrison. But for Marilyn Yalom, author of the recently published book “The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds,” the significance of Paris’ landmark graveyard is that it became the 19th-century archetype. “Pere Lachaise is and was the model for all the rural cemeteries built in the United States from 1831 on,” says Yalom. “It was the first big cemetery outside the city walls of Paris. And this was the first time when cemeteries were just making the transition between inner-city cemetery to garden or rural cemetery.”

The first Pere Lachaise-like cemetery in United States — and still today one of the most beautiful — was Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. “I love to walk there,” says Yalom, who notes that Mt. Auburn is one of her favorites among the hundreds she’s visited. “I love to see the trees and so many famous writers and thinkers are buried there.” Buckminster Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and B.F. Skinner are a few of the longtime inhabitants.

For Jon Berendt, author of the best-selling books “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “City of Falling Angels,” cemeteries have a philosophical significance. “Cemeteries are fascinating,” he says. “They’re a living representation of the culture, the history, the passion of the civilization that deposits its dead there; they’re a spiritual link to the past.” For that reason, Berendt says he always stops by the local cemetery when he’s researching a book. “If you really want to get into the history and the people and the famous families, go to the cemetery."

And that’s exactly what he did when he first moved to Venice to pen “City of Falling Angels.” Venice’s main cemetery, San Michele, located on an island a few minutes via vaparetto from Venice, is nicknamed the “isle of the dead.” It’s best appreciated for what’s not there: living bodies. When Saint Mark’s Square fills up with masses of tourists, San Michele is the place for peace and quiet. “It’s mystical and evocative,” says Berendt, mentioning the crammed-together headstones and the tall cypress trees (an obligatory staple for any Italian cemetery). “And you can see the graves of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Joseph Brodsky.”

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague may not boast any names you’ve heard of, but this burial ground from the 15th century is one of most haunting cemeteries on the planet. The 12,000 corpses crammed into a block-long space have forced the tall thin gravestones to slant in all directions. It also happens to be a favorite of award-winning Irish author John Banville, who penned a travel book about the Czech capital, “Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City.” “I suppose a large part of the fascination of the Old Jewish Cemetery,” says Banville, “is how it is wedged into the modern city, a memento mori and a memento vitae. And of course, it is one of the saddest and eeriest urban sites I know.”

Image: La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Kobi Israel  /  Alamy
Perhaps the most famous cemetery on the continent, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a huge tourist draw, mostly for one gravesite: Eva Peron's.
In Buenos Aires, there may be one grave — that of Eva Peron — which draws countless tourists to La Recoleta Cemetery, but Tony Perrottet says the real lure is the of the entire place. “Really, the journey to Peron’s tomb is the most stunning part of La Recoleta,” says the author of “Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped.” When Perrottet worked as a foreign correspondent, he’d often spend time here for a little tranquility as well as the elegance of the place. “You walk past these giant marble angels and statues of children that had been plucked from their mother’s side cruelly by fate. I think the ambience of the place is very alluring.”

Back on American soil, the most famous cemetery in the country is Arlington National Cemetery. Marilyn Yalom says it is not to be missed. “There’s a different reason why someone would come here than, say, Pere Lachaise,” she says of the massive burial ground just outside of Washington, D.C. “People go there to see the grave of John F. Kennedy, but with the graves of some 360,000 veterans, there’s nothing else like it in the United States. You cannot help but have a sense of American history and patriotism.”

Less famous, but just as haunting is New Orleans’ St. Louis #1 Cemetery. Founded in 1789 just outside of the French Quarter, this graveyard might be one of the most evocative in the United States. “Most people are drawn to cemeteries like St. Louis because our burial customs are different from those practiced in other parts of the country,” says Lora Williams, the programs coordinator for the Big Easy-based Save Our Cemeteries. And she’s right: the jumbled above-ground tombs look like little houses, giving new meaning to the term “city of the dead.”  The cemetery was made famous when it had appeared in the 1969 Dennis Hopper film “Easy Rider,” and it's been one of the United States’ most iconic and favorite cemeteries every since.

Photos: Haunted destinations

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  1. Bran Castle

    Bran Castle, Dracula's castle, in fog, Transylvania. (Gavin Quirke / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Myrtles Plantation

    Now a bed and breakfast, this antebellum estate northwest of Baton Rouge has been called "America's Most Haunted Home." Reported phenomena include an oil portrait whose features become animated, a "bloody handprint" on the adjacent wall, and doors that open and close by themselves. (Courtesy of The Myrtles Plantation) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pfister Hotel

    Built in 1893, the Pfister is the most regal address in Milwaukee, Wis., having hosted every U.S. president since William McKinley and scores of celebrities. But rumors abound that late at night, the spirit of hotel founder Charles Pfister, who died in 1927, arrives to check in. Some guests report hearing strange noises and having paranormal experiences. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Alcatraz

    The former maximum security facility on an island in San Francisco Bay was once home to Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It is no longer used as a prison, but visitors and tour guides have claimed to hear screams, slamming cell doors, and footsteps. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Amityville house

    The house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, gained infamy in a best-selling book and several movies. Former owners reported creaking noises, voices, the music of a full marching band in the middle of the night, foul odors, and a black, shapeless apparition. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Edinburgh Castle

    This ancient stronghold overlooking Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions. It is reputed to have many ghosts, including a drummer who only appears when the castle is about to be attacked, and a piper who disappeared in the tunnels underneath it. (Jonathan Smith  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Paris Catacombs

    In the 1800s, Paris’s cemeteries were coming dangerously close to being filled, so some bodies were moved to tunnels that had been dug beneath the city by workers quarrying for building materials. Bones and skulls are stacked up throughout the Catacombs, and visitors have reported strange voices. (Fred De Noyelle / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Hotel Chelsea

    A familiar haunt for artists and bohemians in the Chelsea district of New York City since it was built in 1883, the Hotel Chelsea still puts up guests today ... if they don’t mind sharing accommodations with the reputed ghosts of former residents Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Eastern State Penitentiary

    Located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, this prison was designed to encourage solitude, supposedly helping prisoners open themselves up to God. But it is said that many went mad instead ... which may explain the eerie noises that have been reported since it closed. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hotel del Coronado

    In 1892, a young woman checked into this luxury hotel on California’s San Diego Bay to meet her husband. He never arrived, and a few days later, she was found dead on the hotel steps. Since then, guests and staff have noticed the pale figure of a young lady in a black lace dress.... (Nathan Hughes) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Inverary Castle

    It is said that the ghost of a harpist who was hanged in 1644 for peeping at the lady of the house can be seen wandering this castle in western Scotland, and can be heard playing every day in its library. The castle is home to the 13th Duke of Argyll today, but sometimes opens its doors to brave visitors. (Graeme Cornwallis / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. New Orleans

    The Big Easy’s French Quarter is well-known to tourists for its hot jazz and spicy food. But New Orleans is also the historic center of voodoo traditions that African-Americans brought to Louisiana during the days of the slave trade. Although those customs were suppressed by slave owners, they linger on today. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Petzow Castle

    This 18th-century castle near Potsdam in eastern Germany is a hotel and restaurant today ... but its corridors harbor a dark history involving murderous barons. (Sven Kaestner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Forks, Washington

    Michael Gurling, right, of the Forks, Wash., Chamber of Commerce, talks about the bonfire location on a beach in LaPush, Wash., that is portrayed in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful vampire-themed "Twilight" books and movies. (Ted S. Warren / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Point Hicks Lighthouse

    In 1947, the keeper of this historic lighthouse on the eastern coast of Australia mysteriously disappeared. Afterward, many visitors have claimed to hear his hobnail boots at night, and it’s said his ghost continues to keep the tower’s brass doorknobs polished to this day. (Oliver Strewe  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Salem, Massachusetts

    The location of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, dramatized in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” is today a mix of important historical sites, New Age boutiques, and witch-kitsch attractions. The Salem Witch Museum claims to be the most visited one in town. (Ed Young / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sleepy Hollow

    This picturesque village 30 miles north of New York City was immortalized in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s classic tale of schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and the fearsome Headless Horseman. Irving implied that the apparition Ichabod saw was a fake, but a number of visitors also have claimed to see the Horseman, supposedly a Hessian trooper whose head was carried off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. (Susan Rosenthal / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Stanley Hotel

    This neoclassical hotel in Estes Park, Colo., was the real-life inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” It is named for Freelan O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, whose ghost has been reported visiting its billiard room and bar. Guests also complain about children playing in the hallways at night ... even when no children are checked in. (Rob Lee) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Tower of London

    The ghosts of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, just two of hundreds of victims executed on Tower Hill over the Tower of London's bloody 900-year history, are among many that have been seen in what is called England's most haunted building. Legend has it that in 1816, a guard died of fright after seeing an apparition of a bear approaching him. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The White House

    America's most famous residence is the setting for a number of ghost stories, some of which have even made it onto the official White House Web site. The spirit of Abigail Adams supposedly continues to do laundry in the East Room, while the ghost of Dolley Madison has been reported looking down upon the Rose Garden. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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