From The Taj Mahal to The Happy Cemetery: A Review of “Great Burial Places” by Adrian Sever

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone —
Man has created death.                 ~ William Butler Yeats 

Great Burial Places by Adrian Sever is a book to leaf through at leisure. Sever takes us on a journey to twenty two tomb precincts and makes the valid point that “although they are geographically and historically dispersed and are the expression of different faiths and cultures, they all bear witness to a universal truth: man’s quest to be remembered in this world and gain immortality in the next.”

The book is filled with beautiful photographs and it is easy to lose oneself in the exquisite turquoise and lapis tiles in the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, the shaded allees of the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna or the “mist infused forest” of moss covered tombstones in the Okuno-in Cemetery. While Sever’s text is scholarly and dense with information, it is not dry.  His background as a historian is evident in the carefully researched details but his own fascination with this subject is always present and there are many rich human stories which catch the imagination.

We are offered sorrowful tales such as the one of Rose Aylmer, a girl of seventeen who died of cholera and was buried in South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata within a year of her arrival, in Calcutta in 1799 and the tragic account of Rosalia Lombardo who died of pneumonia at the age of two in December 1920. Indeed the photo of Rosalia’s angelic embalmed face in a hermetically sealed glass coffin in the Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo (neatly inscripted with the words Nata 1918-Morta 1920) is one of the most heartbreaking images in this book.  I can’t take my eyes off the perfectly tied satin bow in her baby soft hair.


Sever’s book  includes all the great necropolises in the world: The Pantheon, Red Square, Westminster Abbey, The Valley of the Kings, Arlington National Cemetery, The Ming Tombs, St. Peter’s Basilica and, of course, the Taj Mahal.  There is a lot to read about each of these “monumental resting places” but it is the unexpected discoveries in this book that I relish most: the tender and wise jisei or Japanese death poems and quirky jizo statues (odd bodhisattvas) dressed in red bibs and yellow knitted beanies.

Intricate kufic inscriptions on the buildings in the Shah-i-Zinda, the macabre yet strangely heart wrenching mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs and Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful poem La Recoleta.

I cannot stop dipping into the chapter on The Happy Cemetery, Sapanta, Romania. This graveyard of ordinary people is a glorious “riot of colour.” I am intrigued by the story of Stan Ion Patras who painted, wrote poetry and sculpted in wood and was responsible for these merry grave markers. This is my sort of cemetery filled with crosses inscribed with “clever ditties, sometimes critical and occasionally humorous, about the character, the profession, or an important life event of the deceased, along with a [naif style] painting of them…”


I revel in these tiny narratives of simple lives: Here I rest. Pop Ion Osu is my name. And you see how old I am. But I am off to cut the grass and there if I arrive, I will eat a cheese sandwich. And after I eat I will take my sickle and cut the grass because that is the way a peasant works. I lived 68 years. What an absolutely joyful way to remembered – as a sandwich munching grass cutter! Give me a dozen of these naif  paintings and pithy epitaphs of  everyday people rather than one effigy of a king on his tomb. These bright depictions of weavers, mothers, ploughmen, violin players and policemen remind us of our common humanity and the need to live each day to its fullest.


Browsing through Great Burial Places is like watching a fine documentary – full of colourful facts and thought provoking commentary. It allows us to indulge in “tombstone tourism” from the comfort of our armchairs. We are tantalised by the list of famous names buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – Oscar Wilde, Max Ernst, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein. We skim through myths and misconceptions about the Taj Mahal and stare in morbid amazement at the skeletons in The Capuchin Crypt in Rome.

Sever takes us on an epic journey across the world and gives us some important and valuable insights into  ‘’these precincts of the departed [that are] silent witnesses to the many yesterdays of history.”

*All quotes in this review are taken from Great Burial Places (Adrian Sever)

© Anita Patel, 2017



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