During a recent trip to France, I visited the Perre Lachaise cemetery in Paris. My primary objective was to pay tribute to JRD Tata, at his family grave located in this cemetery. The vault in which his family members and he are buried is a simple structure made of speckled grey marble. On top are inscribed three words which evoke the highest Zoroastrian principles – Humata (good thoughts), Hukhta (good words) and Huvarashta (good deeds). Just in case you are wondering why JRD Tata’s grave is located in Paris, you should know that his mother was from France.
I offered my prayers at JRD Tata’s grave, and recalled this giant of a man, whogave his life to the development of Indian industry. For me, it was a moment of peace and fulfilment, to be at the final resting place of the legendary leader. After a few minutes of reflection, I bowed and walked away.
As I walked through the cemetery, I was surprised to see hundreds of other visitors. At many places, I could see tour guides, pointing out specific graves to large groups of people. Three large tourist buses were parked in front of the main gate, and people were streaming in. What was behind this graveyard rush ?
I soon found out that Perre Lachaise is the largest cemetery in France, spread over 110 acres, with over one million people interred within its walls. An amazing 3.5 million visitors comehere each year, which makes it atop tourist destination. I had never before imagined that a cemetery could be such a huge draw. What is equally interesting is that different segments of visitors come here with differing needs. Marketers have begun leveraging these needs in some places and the potential is large.
Here is a brief exploration of some reasons why so many people are becoming avid “taphophiles” (the technical term for a person interested in cemeteries).
Visiting family graves
People visit cemeteries to pay fond and respectful tribute to their ancestors and loved ones, at their final resting places. They place flowers and pray for the departed Soul. Sometimes, an ancestor’s grave may be located in a different country or far-off location — for instance, many English soldiers from the days of the British Raj are interred in graveyards in India. This creates a niche market that tour operators can potentially focus on.
Each of us have our favourite celebrities from the past. Visiting their graves is a pilgrimage of sorts, that brings us as close as possible to our icons. At the Pere Lachaise cemetery described above, millions of people visit to see the graves of famous people such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Frederic Chopin, who are interred here. Some of them have even developed their own traditions. For instance, passionate visitors try to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde after applying lipstick, to leave behind a “print” of their love.
Lessons in history
Many people visit cemeteries for lessons in their nation’s history. For instance, the Arlington National Cemetery in the USA is a popular destination for people who wish to learn about the country’s conflicts, and wars, since it is the resting place for more than 14,000 military veterans. It offers educational tours that engage children and adults, on topics as diverse as the Civil War or African American military heroes. Such cemeteries can trigger deep patriotic feelings, which can also be a key motivation for visiting.
Cemeteries are home to impressive and interesting art, sculpture and architecture. The best known example of great tomb architecture is, the splendid Taj Mahal in Agra, which is, in its essence, a mausoleum that houses the tombs of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The designs of tombstones and their embellishments are often embedded with deep meaning, since they are permanent markers of the individual’s life and death.
The final resting places of saints and religious leaders are popular places of pilgrimage. For instance, Ajmer Sharif Dargah, the tomb of the revered Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chishti, draws millions of people each year. The tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is widely accepted as the place where Jesus Christ was buried, is sacred to the Christian world. Religious tourism is a huge opportunity.
Nature and serendipity
I love the peaceful green spaces of large cemeteries. I also visit them for the possibilities of serendipity which they offer. A few years ago, in the midst of writing a novel themed on coffee, I spent some time walking through Yanaka-reien, a lovely cemetery in Tokyo, with its beautiful alley of cherry trees. There, by sheer accident, I found the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan, who, I discovered to my delight, was also a great lover of coffee. He soon became a prominent character in my book. Cemeteries can also surprise you.
Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.