The best way to get to know a city is to meet some longtime residents, the folks who have been there for a really long time – like a couple centuries or so.

Haunting graveyards while still on this side of the afterlife is a great way to connect with characters from the past, and the rich histories of many great American cities can be found in their cemeteries. Here are six of the most fascinating cemeteries in the US, some livelier than you might expect.

Editor's note: due to COVID-19, some sites may be closed or have visitor restrictions in place. Check with individual cemeteries before visiting, and always follow local travel advice.

A weathered headstone with faded inscriptions in an old cemetery, with the US flag in the background
Headstones at the Old Dutch Burial Ground in Sleepy Hollow date back centuries © Evan Godt / Lonely Planet

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Just upstream on the Hudson River from NYC lies Sleepy Hollow, setting for Washington Irving’s iconic 19th-century story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". According to the tale, the specter of a headless horseman stalks the woods here, while being supernaturally bound from crossing a bridge near an old Dutch burial ground.

Visitors today won’t be able to find such a bridge (don’t let impostors in the area fool you, as whichever wooden bridge inspired Irving would’ve rotted away long ago), but you can indeed inspect 300-year-old headstones in the burial ground at the real-life Old Dutch Church before taking an eerily calm stroll through the adjacent – and much larger – Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Pay your respects to Irving himself, who was buried here in 1859.

Notable permanent residents

Washington Irving (1783–1859), author
William Rockefeller (1841–1922), oil magnate
Elizabeth Arden (18781966), businesswoman in the cosmetics industry

A statue of a long-haired rocker playing the guitar. The guitar has a green scarf tied to it, which holds a piece of fern at the end of the fret board
Statue of Johnny Ramone at Hollywood Forever Cemetery © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA

Resting beneath swaying palm trees, some of the biggest names in showbiz are buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, often in an oversized mausoleum or beneath a life-size statue of their likeness. Pick up a map at the flower shop to get your bearings.

Aside from gawking at memorials to the stars, the site usually hosts events more commonly found in urban parks rather than cemeteries. Events for 2020 are on hold, but in non-pandemic years, you could catch outdoor screenings of classic films in the summer, take in a concert at the cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, or join the raucous Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival.

Notable permanent residents

Judy Garland (1922–1969), actor
Cecil B DeMille (1881–1959), filmmaker
Mel Blanc (1908–1989), comedian and voice actor

 

Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, DC

In 1862, president Abraham Lincoln tragically lost his son Willie to typhoid, and was reportedly driven by grief to enter a mausoleum at this cemetery in Washington, DC to hold the boy’s body a final time. This somber image stuck with author George Saunders and inspired him to write the bestselling 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which in turn has the novel’s fans trekking to Oak Hill Cemetery to see the setting for themselves.

In addition to the modern literary connection, the burial ground is notable for its gatehouse and chapel, designed by renowned architect James Renwick, who also designed St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (and who himself is buried in the next entry on this list…).

Notable permanent residents

Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001), first female publisher of a major American newspaper
Edward Douglass White (1845–1921), Chief Justice of the United States
Edwin Stanton (1814–1869), Lincoln’s Secretary of War

Highly ornate, Gothic-style gateway, with two separate arches to drive under
Green-Wood's Victorian gatehouse makes for a dramatic welcome to the cemetery © Evan Godt / Lonely Planet

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

You’d think the cacophony of sounds in New York City could raise the dead, but to our knowledge, those interred amid the peace and quiet of historic Green-Wood Cemetery have yet to be stirred. Join the half million souls buried here for a pleasant walk past tombs and mausoleums to the highest point in Brooklyn.

The high ground was the setting for 1776 Battle of Long Island, where the Continental Army clashed with British troops, and the event is commemorated by a 7ft statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. In addition to that slice of history, the cemetery is the final resting place of too many notable people to count. 

Notable permanent residents

James Renwick (1818–1895), architect
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), artist
Isabella Goodwin (1865–1943), first female NYPD detective

A row of above-ground mausoleums in New Orleans
The iconic mausoleums in St Louis Cemetery No 1 are a major tourist draw in New Orleans © DnDavis / Shutterstock

St Louis Cemetery No 1, New Orleans, LA

The oldest of a trio of burial grounds bearing the St Louis name, this cemetery is a spooky top sight in New Orleans and great for tapping into the history of the Big Easy. The distinctive look of the cemetery is due to the shallow water table, which made it a necessity to inter the remains of early Creoles in above-ground tombs, many in a distinctive Greek-Revival style.

Among the tombs you’ll spot is that of "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau, a must-see for those intrigued by the occult. Rumors told that Laveau would grant wishes if a visitor drew an "X" on her tomb, spun three times, and knocked on the tomb. Unfortunately, a vandal – perhaps even an overzealous Laveau devotee wishing to provide a blank slate for more wishes – covered the tomb in pink latex paint. Since then, cemetery visitation has been limited to relatives of those buried there and those on approved tours. Cemeteries in New Orleans are closed currently, but when they reopen, arrange a visit through the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries.

Notable permanent residents

Marie Laveau (1801–1881), Voodoo Queen
Étienne de Boré (1741–1820), first mayor of New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase
Homer Plessy (1862–1925), of the Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decision

The skylines of Oakland and San Francisco appear on the horizon from a high point in Mountain View Cemetery
The views at this Oakland cemetery are tough to beat © jmoor17 / Getty Images

Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA

East Bay’s Mountain View Cemetery delivers on its name, offering a great vantage point to take in Oakland and, on a clear day, San Francisco’s skyline.

The serene, park-like surroundings were designed by the architect Frederick Law Olmstead, famous for his work on NYC’s Central Park, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and dozens of other notable parks and university campuses.

Notable permanent residents

J A Folger (1835–1889), founder of Folgers Coffee
Domingo Ghirardelli (1817–1894), founder of Ghirardelli Chocolate Company
Julia Morgan 
(18721957), California's first female architect

Old, cracked, and fading headstone in a Plymouth, Massachusetts cemetery
Time will take its toll on grave markers all on its own, so refrain from touching them and making deterioration worse © Evan Godt / Lonely Planet

Cemetery visit etiquette

Cemeteries are fascinating places to visit, just be mindful of the rules when on hallowed ground. In addition to the obvious things like being respectful of those there to mourn and not standing directly on a resting place, you should also refrain from touching headstones or monuments and check for any posted rules specific to the cemetery you’re visiting. While some allow for group activities, others are more strict or formal.

Article first published October 2018, and last updated September 2020

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This article was first published August 2019 and updated September 2020

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