Calling the Cemeteries – The Hindu BusinessLine

On a recent trip to France, I visited the Perre Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. My primary objective was to pay tribute to JRD Tata, on his family grave located in this cemetery. The vault in which he and his family members are buried is a simple speckled gray marble structure. At the 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 were wondering why JRD Tata’s grave is located in Paris, know that his mother was French.

I offered my prayers at the grave of JRD Tata and remembered this giant man who gave his life for the development of Indian industry. For me, it was a moment of peace and fulfillment, to be at the final resting place of the legendary leader. After a few minutes of thinking, I bowed and left.

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 tour buses were parked outside the main gate, and people were streaming in. What was behind this rush to the cemetery?

I soon discovered that Perre Lachaise is the largest cemetery in France, spanning 110 acres, with over a million people buried within its walls. An incredible 3.5 million visitors come here every year, making it a top tourist destination. I had never imagined before that a cemetery could be such a draw. Equally interesting is that different segments of visitors come here with different needs. Marketers have started taking advantage of these needs in some places and the potential is great.

Here is a brief exploration of some of the reasons why so many people become avid “taphophiles” (the technical term for someone interested in cemeteries).

Visit the family graves

People visit cemeteries to pay loving and respectful tribute to their ancestors and loved ones in their final resting place. They place flowers and pray for the departed soul. Sometimes an ancestor’s grave may be located in a different country or in a remote location – for example, many English soldiers from the time of the British Raj are buried in cemeteries in India. This creates a niche market that tour operators can potentially focus on.

Tribute to celebrities

Each of us has our favorite celebrities from the past. Visiting their tombs is a kind of pilgrimage that brings us as close as possible to our icons. At the Père Lachaise Cemetery described above, millions of people visit the graves of famous people such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Frederic Chopin, who are buried here. Some of them have even developed their own traditions. For example, passionate visitors try to kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave after applying lipstick, to leave behind an “imprint” of their love.

History lessons

Many people visit cemeteries to learn the history of their country. For example, Arlington National Cemetery in the United States is a popular destination for people who want to learn more about the country’s conflicts and wars, as it is the resting place of over 14,000 military veterans. It offers educational tours that engage children and adults alike, 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.

art appreciation

The cemeteries are home to impressive and interesting works of art, sculptures and architecture. The best-known example of great funerary architecture is the splendid Taj Mahal in Agra, which is, in essence, a mausoleum that houses the tombs of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Tombstone designs and their embellishments are often imbued with deep meaning, as they are permanent markers of the life and death of the individual.

religious pilgrimage

The final resting places of saints and religious leaders are popular places of pilgrimage. For example, Ajmer Sharif Dargah, the tomb of the revered Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chishti, attracts millions of people every year. The tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher 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 like the peaceful green spaces of large cemeteries. I also visit them for the possibilities of serendipity they offer. A few years ago, while writing a coffee-themed novel, I spent some time strolling through Yanaka-reien, a charming cemetery in Tokyo, with its lovely cherry tree alley. There, by pure chance, I found the tomb of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun of Japan, who, I discovered to my delight, was also a great coffee lover. He quickly became an important character in my book. Cemeteries may also surprise you.

Harish Bhat is the custodian of the brand, Tata Sons. These are his personal opinions.

Published on

August 21, 2022

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