The Afterlife

Cemetery Tourism (or The Search for Jim Morrison)

Visit the places where famous people are just dying to get in.

By Bill Wiatrak December 28, 2015

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Jim Morrison's grave in Paris at the 110-acre Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Last week I was wandering through headstones at the Père Lachaise cemetery on the east side of Paris and thinking to myself what an odd choice I was making. After all, I had just driven almost an hour from the Palace of Versailles and my first stop in Paris was a graveyard? Granted, I’ve been to Paris before and seen most of the sights covered by the tour buses, but I had been sent on a mission by a friend. My quest: to find the grave of Jim Morrison.

At first, it might seem strange that an American icon like Jim Morrison is buried on the other side of the world. James Douglas Morrison passed away of heart failure in 1971 after leaving The Doors and moving to Paris to pursue poetry. His funeral was quick, awkward, controversial and had only six close friends in attendance; it wasn't really the sort of ending that one might expect for The Lizard King. Hardly anyone came to Morrison’s burial, but in the decades since, thousands of fans have visited his grave, brought him offerings, and even tried to dig him up. Eventually a fence was put around his modest headstone to keep the riff raff out. You can’t keep a true groupie out for long, so you’ll see his grave decorated with pictures, flowers, even miniature liquor bottles and jewelry. Jim would be proud. Most people probably don’t give a second thought to where famous people go when they pass on to the Great Gig in the Sky, but the answer can sometimes be fascinating.

The 110-acre Père Lachaise cemetery is the largest in Paris, and it's full of famous people—not just Jim Morrison. The famous Polish composer Frédéric Chopin is interred there and still gets flowers 170 years after his death. Oscar Wilde left England after being imprisoned in his own country for being a little too “Wilde” and ended up here too; a few copies of his books have been tossed over the Plexiglas wall that protects his memorial and houses scribbled graffiti from wannabe writers. Honoré de Balzac is regarded as one of France’s most famous writers and receives visitors daily as well. There’s countless others, but the biggest question is this: How do you find who you’re looking for in a virtual city of gravestones and sepulchers? If you want to find Jim Morrison’s grave, Google it. Google maps will take you step by step to Jim’s place. You can even check in on Facebook. Want to see who’s buried at Père Lachaise? There’s an app for that.

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Frédéric Chopin's grave in Paris is so prettily decorated, you can easily forget you're in a cemetery.

I suppose after I downloaded the cemetery app, I realized that my macabre tour wasn’t that strange of a travel choice. Obviously there’s other people interested in finding famous graves or just wandering around and seeing the sights. After all, this cemetery is like a city. Some of the tombs are huge and ornate, others look like the perfect place to film a vampire movie. The cemetery even has streets signs. It’s a photographer’s paradise, like looking at old churches perhaps, but each one just a few footsteps away from the other. Some have statues of the hosts resting on top, others are weathered and barely readable. Each one has its own story, and that’s what interests me. Who are these people? How did they end up in one of the most famous cemeteries in the world?

Besides the photography allure of cemetery spelunking, one has to admit that finding headstones is a little like a scavenger hunt. It’s a challenge to many to find a particular memorial. I’ve often seen geocaching sites in cemeteries. Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt game where travelers stow away little caches with logbooks or trinkets for other travelers to find using their telephone GPS function. Once I searched for a little hidden canister in the Galveston cemetery. I looked for an hour, even asked a groundskeeper. The hints got me within 10 feet of the canister, but alas I was “gravely” disappointed when I couldn’t find it.

Last year I was in Deadwood, South Dakota and stumbled upon the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. I admit I knew they were supposed to be Old West legends, but until I saw the shrine that their fans had created on their final resting places I had never bothered to read their history. Once I started doing a little reading about them, an amazing story came to light about their relationship, Wild Bill’s murder, and their influence on the remaining few decades of the Wild West. On another recent trip I found Kit Carson’s grave in New Mexico. His life with the native Americans and his influence in the area was fascinating. Benjamin Franklin is buried in Boston and still makes about $750 a year in pennies thrown by fans onto his grave, as his fans remember that “a penny saved is a penny earned” even 200 years after his death. I think a true Franklin-phyte should have thrown him a Benjamin, but $100 bills have a tendency to quickly disappear faster than other denominations. Why do people visit these graves? Maybe it’s because these celebrities are more accessible than their living counterparts. Maybe it’s for the hunt.

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The grave of reputed voodoo queen Marie Laveau, defiled by tourists and practitioners, sits next to a modern grave in St Louis Cemetery No 1. in New Orleans.

Image: Shutterstock

I had no idea who Marie Laveau was before I visited her grave in New Orleans, and I don't think I would have ever looked into her fascinating history if I hadn’t visited their memorial. Seeing the appreciation heaped upon the gravestones by undying fans has to be the best compliment ever. You have to be curious how these stars have influenced their fans’ lives enough that the person would make the pilgrimage to visit them after their death. Visit Bob Marley’s grave in Jamaica if you want to see some dedicated fans. Jim has nothing on Bob.

There are plenty of cemeteries scattered around the world that have no one you’ve ever heard of buried there, but still make fascinating stops. Salem, Massachusetts has one of the creepiest little cemeteries in the world and looks just like what you might expect from a famous witch town. Ireland and Scotland are full of Celtic cross gravestones on craggy, moss-covered ground in their ancient gardens of the dead. The Cemetery of Americans killed in Normandy is an awe-inspiring and touching site. You’ve heard of JFK, but probably not the other 360,000 buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Next time you’re traveling, do a web search for famous people buried in the city you’re visiting; you might enjoy the adventure more than you imagined.

Next week I’m traveling through Los Angeles and will definitely be making a stop at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to pay my respects to Rudolph Valentino and Peter Lorre. Hot Shots, LA Story and Dexter have all shot scenes at this famous graveyard filled with stars. I’ll try to get there early. Everyone else is just dying to get in.

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