Societies and cultures have dedicated areas of land as burial sites throughout human history. Often, these sites serve as reflections of the cultural values of their creators.
This is particularly clear in many of the world’s largest cemeteries. Although it’s not always the case, many of the largest cemeteries in the world are relatively old. This means they can offer unique glimpses into the past for those who visit.
Consider the following examples. As the 10 largest cemeteries in the world, their stories can teach you a lot about why cemeteries have played an important role in human cultural life for millennia. You may even want to visit a few!
(Note: Many of these cemeteries typically allow public visitors. However, as of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in temporary restrictions at most. Be sure to check official websites or municipal departments before planning a visit.)
10. Crown Hill Cemetery
- Area: 374 Acres
- Buried: 185,000+
- Established: 1863
- Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States
Both the Civil War and a growing population prompted the need for a new cemetery in the Indianapolis area during the 1860s. The result, Crown Hill Cemetery, would go on to become one of the largest cemeteries in the world, and an official National Historic Site.
To ensure a pleasant atmosphere, the cemetery’s planners hired landscape designer John Chislett to design the layout. Chislett selected a gorgeous location featuring natural hills, trees, and grassy areas, offering a calming experience to those who tour the grounds. Crown Hill Cemetery is now home to such features as a Gothic Revival chapel, as well as the graves of noteworthy figures such as John Dillinger. Visitors are welcome to tour the property with a guide, either privately or as part of a group.
- Area: 590 Acres
- Buried: 330,000
- Established: 1874
- Location: Vienna, Austria
Zentralfriedhof, also known as Vienna Central Cemetery, was built thanks to a rising population in Vienna as a result of industrialization. City officials realized the city’s existing cemeteries wouldn’t offer enough space for future burial needs. The cemetery they developed was unique for its time because it was one of the few cemeteries in the region that served multiple denominations. This actually caused some controversy during its early years.
Zentralfriedhof is now famous for being one of the largest cemeteries in the world. The cemetery also served as a shooting location for two iconic scenes from The Third Man. Today, visitors can stop by graves of loved ones, enjoy the property’s relaxing park-like atmosphere, or enjoy a tour of the grounds with an audio guide, mobile app, or augmented reality tour.
8. Arlington National Cemetery
- Area: 624 Acres
- Buried: 400,000 (Approximately)
- Established: 1864
- Location: Arlington County, VA, United States
Along with being one of the largest cemeteries in the world, Arlington National Cemetery may be one of the world’s most famous military cemeteries. The land on which it sits used to belong to the step-grandson of George Washington. It eventually fell into the ownership of Robert E. Lee’s family, but Union troops occupied it when the Lees were forced to flee during the Civil War.
This occupation is the reason the property became a cemetery. War deaths resulted in a lack of burial spots in the existing cemeteries throughout the Washington D.C. area. Thus, in 1864, the military started burying bodies on the grounds, and the War Department officially set aside areas of the property for this purpose. The War Department retained ownership of the grounds after the war ended, but compensated the Lee family for the property.
Who can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery? As long as a veteran was honorably discharged and had at least one day of active service, they are technically eligible for above-ground interment. Criteria for in-ground burials are more stringent.
If you want to see the grounds or visit a particular gravesite but you’re not sure how to find a grave in a cemetery, the ANC Explorer mobile app makes navigating the property extremely easy.
7. Spring Grove Cemetery
- Area: 733 Acres
- Buried: 235,000 (Approximate)
- Established: 1845
- Location: Cincinnati, OH, United States
Like many of the largest cemeteries in the world, the story of Spring Grove Cemetery offers an interesting history lesson. The resurgence of the cholera epidemic during the 1830s and 1840s prompted Cincinnati residents to demand a cemetery that would allow them to visit their deceased loved ones in a more peaceful and comforting setting than that of the uglier cemeteries found throughout the city.
As a result, members of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society formed a cemetery association to acquire the land needed to create such a burial ground. They eventually developed a cemetery that many regard as an impressive example of landscaping art. Visitors can see the grounds and arboretum every day from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
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6. Rookwood Cemetery
- Area: 691 Acres
- Buried: 1 million+
- Established: 1867
- Location: Sydney, Australia
Many consider Rookwood Cemetery to be the largest burial ground in the Southern Hemisphere. It also offers guests a rare glimpse into the past, as its appearance reflects Victorian ideals regarding proper cemetery design. For instance, the designers consistently choose to decorate it with flowers the Victorians would have chosen because of their symbolic meanings.
Along with serving as a cemetery, the spot’s natural environment makes it a haven for the area’s birds and plant life. Its architecture represents a uniquely wide range of styles as well. This is because the cemetery consists of different sections for different religions, denominations, and cultural groups.
So, the monuments and structures in the cemetery reflect numerous cultural approaches to burials. These are all reasons many people visit, regardless of whether they have loved ones buried here.
5. Karacaahmet Cemetery
- Area: 750 Acres
- Buried: 1 million+
- Established: 1338 (?)
- Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Karacaahmet Cemetery gets its name from the warrior Karacaahmet, buried here. Visitors often travel to pray at his tomb. Additionally, the carvings on the tombstones tell a story about the way Turkey’s class system evolved over the years. For instance, men’s tombs feature carvings of turbans. The style of turban indicates the social status of the person buried in that particular spot.
Scholars are not entirely certain precisely how old Karacaahmet Cemetery is. However, evidence suggests it may date back to 1338.
4. Ohlsdorf Cemetery
- Area: 966 Acres
- Buried: 256,000
- Established: 1877
- Location: Ohlsdorf, Germany
Ohlsdorf Cemetery is unique for several reasons. For one, it’s not merely a cemetery. Sections of the grounds also serve as recreation areas. The cemetery is home to three museums, numerous beautiful sculptures, impressive trees, and gorgeous rhododendron bushes as well.
This makes it a popular attraction not only for those who have a loved one buried here, but also for the average tourist. In fact, approximately two million people visit Ohlsdorf Cemetery every year.
3. Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery
- Area: 982 Acres (Upon full completion)
- Buried: 60,000 (Approximate)
- Established: 1999
- Location: Elwood, IL, United States
Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery isn’t famous simply due to its size. It’s also home to the first federally-approved monument honoring the sacrifices of LGBTQ+ veterans. The government officially established the monument in 2015—an activist group started campaigning for one in 2011.
That’s when veteran Stanley Jenczyk penned a letter to President Obama requesting the dedication of a monument recognizing LGBTQ+ members of the armed forces. Veterans whose military experiences date back to the 1950s attended the dedication ceremony.
2. Calverton National Cemetery
- Area: 1,045 Acres
- Buried: 212,000 (as of 2008)
- Established: 1978
- Location: Calverton, NY, United States
Calverton National Cemetery is one of several national cemeteries located on New York’s Long Island. In fact, the National Cemetery System constructed it because the other national cemeteries on Long Island were running out of space.
It’s now home to a range of notable monuments and serves as a burial spot for Medal of Honor recipients and other noteworthy veterans.
1. Wadi Al-Salaam
- Area: 2266 Acres
- Buried: 5 million
- Established: Unknown
- Location: Najaf, Iraq
The largest cemetery in the world is Wadi al-Salaam. It’s also one of the oldest. It’s worth noting that Wadi al-Salaam’s age and massive size make confirming certain details about it difficult.
For instance, there’s no consensus on precisely how large it is, or how many people are buried there. The most common estimate for the number of people buried in Wadi al-Salaam is five million, and according to UNESCO, its size is 917 hectares, or approximately 2266 acres (although not all agree with these estimates). Additionally, its size continues to expand as more deceased people are buried.
Wadi al-Salaam is a very important place for many Shia Muslims. This is because it’s located on a spot that Imam Ali, a major figure in Shia Islam, supposedly declared to be the gateway to Paradise. This is why many Shia Muslims aspire to be buried here when they die. Approximately 50,000 people are buried here every single year, and millions more visit, whether they knew someone buried in Wadi al-Salaam or not.
Wadi al-Salaam’s exact age is unknown. However, UNESCO estimates burials have been taking place in this cemetery for upwards of 1,400 years.
A Shared Cultural Tradition
How cultures design cemeteries and bury their dead varies from one culture to another. That said, while the details of these cemeteries may be different, they all serve as reminders that laying our dead to rest is a cultural experience we all share.
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- “Arlington National Cemetery.” U.S. Army, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Portals/0/Web%20Final%20PDF%20of%20Brochure%20March%202015.pdf
- “Crown Hill Cemetery.” “The Cultural Landscape Foundation.” tclf.org/landscapes/crown-hill-cemetery
- “Establishing Eligibility.” Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Army, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/funerals/scheduling-a-funeral/establishing-eligibility
- “Eyewitness Travel: Istanbul.” Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2013, books.google.com/books?id=GV7yAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA132&dq=karacaahmet&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi3_a7s09voAhXChHIEHYScCeUQ6AEwBHoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q=karacaahmet&f=false
- “FACTS ABOUT THE NATIONAL CEMETERY ADMINISTRATION.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, www.cem.va.gov/cem/docs/factsheets/facts.pdf
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- “History.” Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, The Spring Grove Group, www.springgrove.org/history.aspx?mID=33
- Jabbari, Dorsa. “Wadi al-Salaam. The world’s largest cemetery.” Al Jazeera Media Network, 7 May 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/wadi-al-salam-worlds-largest-cemetery-190507134850459.html
- Jackson, Patrick. “Najaf's hallowed cemetery.” BBC, 12 August 2004, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3716143.stm
- “Monument to LGBT veterans dedicated in Elwood.” ABC 7 Eyewitness News, ABC, Inc., 25 May 2015, abc7chicago.com/society/monument-to-lgbt-veterans-dedicated-in-elwood/741262/
- “Notable Persons.” Crown Hill Funeral Home & Cemetery, www.crownhill.org/notable-persons/
- “OHLSDORF CEMETERY.” Hamburger Friedhofe, www.friedhof-hamburg.de/start-en/ohlsdorf-cemetery.html
- “Our Heritage.” Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, The Spring Grove Group, www.springgrove.org/about.aspx
- “Rookwood Cemetery and Necropolis.” New South Wales Office of Environment & Heritage, 13 July 2006, www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5045470
- “Secretary Shinseki Announces $32 Million to Calverton Cemetery.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 29 September 2009, web.archive.org/web/20100527141100/http://www1.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=1787
- “Vienna Central Cemetery.” Friedhöfe Wien GmbH, www.friedhoefewien.at/eportal3/ep/channelView.do/pageTypeId/75474/channelId/-52441
- “Visit.” Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Army, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Visit
- “Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery in Najaf.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 24 January 2011, whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5578/