Traveling to Observe Burial Rites and Graveyard Customs

I have come to learn throughout my travels that tourists are interested in graveyards. This would surely not be my first point of entry in any country, but I have visited them. One time in Aruba on an island tour, we strolled around the graveyard and I had a premonition about my father’s impending death, so I quickly got back on the bus early ( the timing for the premonition was unfortunately accurate). One time in Dublin I took a late-night graveyard tour, and we were all asked to take a photo of one area where the spirits were said to have gathered. Everyone’s photo came out normally and captured the image that was photographed but mine, even when I took it a second time. It was all white. Even the tour guide wasn’t sure what to make of that, although that was supposed to be the point; graveyards provide the traveler with experiences they are not likely to find anyplace else.

Go to Central or South America and pass a graveyard on their Day of the Dead, and you will observe a cultural experience that is party-like in atmosphere, and a remembrance of loved ones filled with balloons, cakes, and all the deceased’s favorite foods. I saw this in Nicaragua before joining the Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Central America, Route of the Maya. While on that tour, we strolled through a beautiful graveyard in Guatemala City. Many of the larger gravestones and family burial areas had benches in front of them, some with round tables and chairs. Family members were more than welcome to come and visit their deceased loved ones.  

In Asia, I found things to be quite different when it came to burial practices. The most unusual I encountered was on the OAT tour, Inside Vietnam. While strolling through a graveyard outside of Hanoi, we learned that the North Vietnamese bury their dead not once, but twice. This is apparently not true for all Vietnamese since they stem from different tribes. But the Vietnamese in the North dig up the grave of a loved one after three years of the corpses being in a coffin. They then clean the bones of any remains, then rebury the bones in shrines.  This unusual custom is based on the belief that family ancestors will all be together in the afterlife, so they bury them twice to ensure it. The shrines are typically in a different in location then the original burial site.

The cleaning of the bones after three years is done by one or more family members, but there are apparently specialists who can do it too. Different Vietnamese ethnic groups have different burial traditions. One group, the Hmong, slaughters cows to help the deceased travel into the afterlife. Other ethnic groups make sure the dead have enough money for their journey. The family is supported by friends and relatives as they mourn for two or three years but gather periodically in between for times of remembrance.

Any trip to Poland or Central Europe is bound to allow for the opportunity to go to a Jewish graveyard. Many of these have been neglected over the decades, since so many perished during the Holocaust with those who are buried there. In one small town in Poland, we met the last surviving Jew from that town, who had relocated to Sweden after having survived the Holocaust. He was dressed as though it was still 1945. He returned every summer to clean the graves of friends and relatives he once knew. Most in his village were shot on the spot, and he witnessed the atrocity as a child, which he later testified about as a witness during the Nuremburg Trials. As fascinating as his tale was – which we heard about standing in the graveyard he kept up – additionally memorable was his having to leave us quickly for a few minutes to take a cell  phone call. He hardly dressed the part of the 21st century! But this and many other experiences are the rich and unique encounters a traveler can have with graveyard visits.

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