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The grave but lucrative business of tombstone tourism


Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Death is a thriving business, as any funeral director will tell you. So the news that Glasnevin Cemetery has introduced a new 'Dead Interesting' tour should come as no surprise.

Long known as 'the dead centre of Dublin', this final resting place of 1.5 million souls will now thrill the tourist throngs with tales of the Seapoint tragedy, the woman who was buried twice and the parrot mistakenly shot for bodysnatching. Tombstone tourism might, at first glance, seem a ghoulish form of vacation entertainment, but has become a gravely important source of revenue in cities around the world.

Offering much more than a morbid fascination with death, tours of sacred places like the 185-year-old Glasnevin are genealogical journeys of cultural appreciation and quirky lore.

Proving that six feet of cold clay is no obstacle to enduring popularity, Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris leads the dearly departed stakes with millions visiting Jim Morrison, Maria Callas, Frédéric Chopin and Oscar Wilde every year. At London's Highgate cemetery, multitudes regularly flock to the final resting place of Karl Marx - and it was even the scene of two attempted bombings in the 1960s. Fay Wray, who hung from the Empire State Building in the 1933 'King Kong' movie, remains a star attraction at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, with the film screened there on her anniversary.

Not far away, superstitious golfers still stop to pat the headstone of Bobby Jones en route to the Masters in Augusta, and if you happen to kick the bucket in Lake Forest, why not consider a plot next to Jean Vander Pyl, who was the voice of Wilma Flintstone - surely a cause for "Yabba-dabba-do" moments when relatives come to pay their last respects.

Away from the hordes of tourists saying it with flowers at the Glasnevin grave of Michael Collins, your average cemetery remains one of modern life's ultimate refuges. Having recently taken on the task of getting the family headstone sandblasted and re-lettered after decades of neglect, I had occasion to find more than a stony silence in that place my own bones will reside some day.

"Take a stroll through the other monuments and pick a script you'd like to use", the stonemason suggested, prompting an amble around the hidden corners of our country churchyard.

Quiet places, these final resting spots of past generations, even on stormy days they seem somehow immune to the bluster of life outside their gates. Robert Frost's poetry is an ideal mindsong for their calm confines of peace and recollection: "The living come with grassy tread to read the gravestones on the hill, The graveyard draws the living still but never anymore the dead."

Wandering amidst headstones dating back to the 1800s, the notion of how slender a thread we all dangle by grips the mind as the epitaphs of lost souls from another era nod mutely to the modern age.

Brevity was clearly the soul of description for ancient mourners with a simple "good wife, dearly missed" encapsulating a lifetime of togetherness.

For some, the final lines sketch a wicked sorrow and anguish: "Sadly taken, too soon."

Death and its attendant sorrow is a numbers game etched on weathered stones recording wives gone by 30 and husbands departed sometimes before the wedding confetti was swept up.

Modern remorse is no less sorrowful, but a good deal more dazzling with gold-lettered epitaphs on shiny marble headstones adorned by all manner of filigreed cherubs.

If you really want pointers on the enduring impact of understatement, look no further than the humble beds of our ancient faithful departed as the ultimate lesson that less is more.

And if death is a sorrow destined to visit all our lives one day, so too is the associated pain of paying for a burial plot in modern Ireland. Ranging from €30,000 in certain Dublin suburbs to €5,000 down the country, the cost of the final farewell is another reason for copious tears when the final fee is totalled.

Pausing to latch the cemetery gate, thoughts of what epitaph might best sum up my own existence when that fateful day finally arrives pricked uneasily at my conscience. What kind words would be muttered when glasses are raised to on the day I take residence six feet under?

Walking uneasily back into the real world outside that peaceful domain, the sad reality that life is not a rehearsal dawned with a terrible clarity.

Irish Independent