Cities of the Dead – Book Review

Liz Gill enjoys Yolanda Zappaterra’s book describing fascinating facts about 53 of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries

Cities of the Dead 1Those terrified of cemeteries are known as coimetrophobics but many other people with less extreme reactions still shy away, fearing a visit would be morbid or frightening or depressing.

Nothing could be further from the truth according to Yolanda Zappaterra, author of Cities of the Dead which celebrates 53 of the world’s most beautiful. Cemeteries, she says, bring together architecture, history, art, culture and landscaping in a unique combination.

They are “windows into every aspect of humanity and its nature. Here, laid bare, are clearly visible mankind’s potential for greatness – intelligence, personal achievements, philanthropy, generosity, creativity, imagination – but also our potential for weakness and failure – bloodlust, war, famine, greed and brutality.” In other words, all human life is here as well as our relationship with death.

The entries, all with lovely photographs, range in geography across the Americas, through Europe and on to Asia, Africa and Oceania and in time from Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives established three thousand years ago to the ultra-modern Gubbio in Mount Ingino in Umbria built in 2011. The earliest European one is beside Iona Abbey in the Inner Hebrides, burial site of St. Columba and place of pilgrimage since the sixth century.

Each is packed with statistics and other facts covering size, reasons for existing, special points of interest, nature and wildlife and styles architectural, funereal and horticultural: many were designed for the living to wander around in and enjoy as well as for the dead.

Some have a dreadful story to tell such as the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw which charts both the flourishing of the community in the 19th century and its destruction in the 20th. Graves were used not just for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but also for the victims of mass executions.

War cemeteries are another example of the dark side of history. Arlington in Virginia was established during the American Civil War and is now the burial ground of more than 400,000 military men and women as well as civilians who died in terrorist attacks like 9/11 and Lockerbie and, of course, President John Kennedy.

At the Douaumont Ossuary and Verdun Memorial which contains the bones of around 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers who died in that battle Zappaterra climbs the 150ft tower to look out across the battlefield – ‘the vast scale is unforgettable’.

Her enthusiasm for her subject is so infectious it makes you feel no visit anywhere would be complete without a visit to its cemetery and there’s a helpful information sector listing addresses and websites as well as a fascinating glossary of symbolism in cemeteries.

Zappaterra has the journalist’s ear for the quirky and the offbeat as well as the heart-warming human interest story. The most visited grave in Tokyo’s Aoyama Cemetery, for instance, is that of the famous dog Hachi whose faithful nine year vigil at the station where he used to await his master inspired a film with Richard Gere. A similarly much visited grave is that of the 19th century women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony at Mount Hope, Rochester, New York, where a tradition has grown up for women to place ‘I Voted’ stickers on her headstone around election time.

The roll call of the great and the good – and the often downright bad – is one of the main attractions of visiting a cemetery. One may only have a single internationally known name such as that of Evita Peron in Buenos Aires’s Recoleta; others read like a Who’s Who. Pere Lachaise in Paris, for example, includes Maria Callas, Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Balzac, Modligiani, Chopin, Rossini and Bizet.

Highgate in North London has in its East section Karl Marx (the tomb opposite is that of a Spencer family so the joke is always that you go through Marx and Spencer), George Eliot, Douglas Adams, punk maestro Malcolm McLaren and Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds. Over in the older, romantically rambling West section is George Michael. His grave is unmarked – there were fears it might become a shrine – but it is not hard to spot. He is buried alongside his Greek named mother, the plot is perfectly tended with fresh white flowers but the real give away is the sign ‘no photos’.

Highgate is where my husband is buried and where I plan to be one day.

Zappaterra is often asked which cemetery she would choose. The ocean-side Waverley in Sydney, the tranquil and ethereal Bonaventure in Savannah, St Mary’s in Whitby and the Valley of the Temples on O’ahu in Hawaii would all, she says, make “very fine final resting places.

But in the final analysis and perhaps simply because the constant sound of shells underfoot and the sea all around fills the space with life as much as death, I think I would opt for Fadiouth Shell Island on Joal-Fadiouth in Senegal.

At the end of the book among the acknowledgements is one of the most tender I have ever read. “And lastly, thanks and my undying love go to my husband Paul Murphy, my constant consigliere, my best friend and the person I look forward to spending eternity with – wherever it may be.”

Cities of the Dead by Yolanda Zappaterra is published by Frances Lincoln pp 238 £32.

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