Lonely Planet Writer

Why tombstone tourism is changing the way we look at our graveyards

It may seem ever so slightly macabre but so-called tombstone tourism – visits to the graveyards of the rich and famous – are dramatically growing in popularity.

The headstone of punk rock guru Malcolm McLaren at Highgate Cemetery, London. Image by Jim Dyson/Getty Images
The headstone of punk rock guru Malcolm McLaren at Highgate Cemetery, London. Image by Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Between Paris’ Père Lachaise and the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, visits to burial grounds have always been a fixture on trips for many. However, one UK tour group have turned their attention not just to the burial plots of the well-known, but rather the stories behind everyone who rests there.

Sheldon Goodman of The cemetery Club at Tower Hamlets cemetery. East London.
Sheldon Goodman of The Cemetery Club at Tower Hamlets cemetery, East London. Image by: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Sheldon Goodman of the London-based Cemetery Club: “My personal mission statement is to change our perceptions of cemeteries – they’re not solely places of mourning and sadness, but a library of the long gone who have stories and achievements which should be shared and celebrated. “It’s our job to bring these stories to life – and unearth some facts about people who’ve not necessarily been spoken about before. The rich and poor all get an equal share.”

One tour around the graveyard at Tower Hamlets has been running for several years and focuses on the legendary characters of London’s famous East End. Sheldon explained: “People like Will Crooks who helped bring in the pension … the tragic end to Eileen Lockhart [a famous English murder story], or even Charlie Brown, the legendary publican who could empty a pub simply by lifting his finger.”

They have just started tours around Hampstead Cemetery, where buried are the inventor of the ballpoint pen, a horn player who had a car magazine on his music stand when he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and even a Grand Duke of Russia.

“People are interested because there is a romance associated with [graveyards],” said Sheldon, “the founder of Findagrave calls them ‘parks for introverts’. You get history, nature and beauty packaged up into something you wouldn’t expect to be such a rich cultural resource.”

The sheer number of celebrities who died in the gloomy year of 2016 has also caused a surge in interest as people look to visit the resting places of their beloved stars. Sheldon said: “I think the barrier of death is slowly being worn down and normalised. There’s also a genuine interest in the past and how people lived then.”