The oldest cemeteries or graveyards around the world aren’t really cemeteries. A better term for them would be burial grounds or locations. Why? Because the concept of cemeteries as we know them is relatively new. The Victorian Era brought us the rural or garden-style cemeteries that were established starting in the 1830s in America.
The burial locations listed below are a far cry from lavish grounds filled with intricately carved monuments and hundreds of trees. They can be clusters of graves in a small area or a much more organized and larger area of graves.
Of course, countless cemeteries are lost to time. Some were destroyed by wars. Others were forgotten and left for nature to reclaim. That makes it very difficult to locate an entire graveyard from even a hundred years ago, let alone find a grave in one.
Fortunately for us, there are burial grounds that have stood the test of time. We assembled a list of 10 cemeteries you should know about. Some of these cemeteries are the oldest in a country or on a continent. Some are thought to be the oldest in the world. Each of them has a unique story to tell.
Read on to learn about the world’s oldest cemeteries.
1. Gross Fredenwalde (near Gross Fredenwalde, Germany)
What’s the oldest cemetery in the world? It’s believed to be Gross Fredenwalde Cemetery. This German cemetery dates back to the Mesolithic times, making it about 8,500 years old and likely the oldest burial location on the entire continent.
Gross Fredenwalde Cemetery is named for the nearby village of the same name. It was discovered in 2016 by anthropologists, who were shocked to find multiple graves in one location. The Mesolithic people were wanderers, so it was rare for them to have cemeteries.
Another interesting note is that the burials found were of children, including a six-month-old infant and male buried standing upright. The infant’s skeleton is the oldest in Germany.
Thomas Terberger of the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation said, “It’s the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia.”
2. Oleni Ostrov (Karelia, Russia, formerly Finland)
Karelia (where Oleni Ostrov* is located) was once part of Finland but was taken over by the USSR during WWII. Oleni Ostrov dates back to the same period as Gross Fredenwalde: the Mesolithic period. This cemetery also contains stand-up burials like the ones discovered in Gross Fredenwalde, which leads researchers to believe that people migrated through northern and southern Europe.
The Oleni Island cemetery was undiscovered until 1936. It was found during a limestone quarry dig, which did quite a bit of damage to the unknown burial grounds. In 1990, the cemetery was carbon-dated by some researchers back to the “middle of the 6th millennium BC.”
*Oleni is also spelled Oleniy or Olenij, and “ostrov” means “island.”
3. St. Croix Island (Maine, USA)
Obviously, this isn’t one of the oldest cemeteries in the world, but it’s one of the oldest in the New World. Surprisingly, it’s not located where you might think. Rather than in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims would land in 1620, it’s on a small river island between America and Canada.
In 1604—sixteen years prior—French explorers came to St. Croix Island expecting a peaceful paradise. What they got was an early, severe winter and a “hideous, mysterious disease” (likely scurvy).
Of the 79 settlers, 35 died and 20 more were close to it. During the one year the French were there, they lost nearly half of their people. They were buried in a small cemetery on the island—the first church-related or Christian cemetery in what would become America.
4. Grotte des Pigeons (Taforalt, Morocco)
The oldest cemetery in Africa is Grotte des Pigeons Cave in Taforalt, Morocco. It dates back 15,000 years. The people of this time were hunters and gatherers who used the cave to build fires and cook. The cave also became a burial site. The dead were taken to the back of the cave for burial.
Since 2004, archaeologists have discovered the remains of seven people in the cave.
5. Okunoin Temple and Cemetery (Mount Koya, Wakayama, Kansai)
This sacred cemetery is the oldest and the largest in Japan. It was established in 819 CE by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō-Daishi. His mausoleum is located there as well. The cemetery is huge and contains the remains of an estimated 200,000 people. “Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage spot.”
The cemetery is a very sacred location in Japan. When you visit the cemetery using the traditional entrance, you will enter at the Ichinohashi Bridge. Before you go in, make sure to bow as a sign of respect for Kōbō-Daishi.
6. Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague (Czech Republic)
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague dates back to 1439 with the last burials in 1787. According to the Jewish Museum in Prague, it’s “among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world.”
As space was limited, burials began taking place on top of pre-existing graves. So while 12,000 gravestones can be seen, experts think there may be up to 100,000 individuals who were buried there during its 348 years of activity.
If you visit Prague, make sure you see this stunning cemetery. It’s made many must-see lists for places to see around the world.
7. Kerameikos (Athens, Greece)
In Athens, Greece, you will find the first organized cemetery in the world. Kerameikos dates back to c. 1200 BCE. It can be found north of the Acropolis. There are two sections in the cemetery, and they’re divided by the Wall of Themistocles.
Here you will find incredible ancient Greek stone-carvings. Because of this, Kerameikos is an excellent example of an outdoor museum. Fittingly, there is an actual museum on the grounds.
This ancient cemetery is in downtown Athens and is “one of the most beautiful and least visited of the archaeological sites” in the area according to the tourist site Athensguide.com. Check it out now before everyone catches on!
8. Heiliger Sand (Worms, Germany)
Heiliger Sand (Holy Sand) is located in the aptly named town of Worms, Germany. That is, if you’re thinking of the “worms go in, the worms go out” rhyme. Also known as the Jewish Cemetery, it was established in the 11th century. The oldest graves are from as early as 1058.
According to the Worms Tourism site, that means Holy Sand is the oldest nearly intact Jewish cemetery in Europe. Important people buried here include martyrs, scholars, benefactors, and rabbis dating back to the Middle Ages. The cemetery draws visitors from the world over.
There are approximately 2,500 graves in this cemetery, which is nicely spread out across a green, wooded lawn area. Amazingly, it was “spared attacks and devastation during the years of Nazi dictatorship,” and it only sustained “some isolated bomb damage” during World War II.
9. Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery (Al-Najaf, Iraq)
Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery is not only one of the oldest cemeteries in the world, it is also one of the largest (917 hectares or 2,266 acres). Burials date back farther than the Medieval Period.
Experts believe that the oldest graves of Muslims are here. It also “is the only cemetery in the world [where] the process of burial is still continuing today [after] more than 1,400 years.” It’s the burial ground of Al-Hira’s kings, sultans, prophets, other leaders, and more.
10. Uyun al-Hammam (Jordan)
In 2000, professors from the University of Toronto discovered the cemetery Uyun al-Hammam in Jordan. They found the remains of 11 people on the site dating back 16,500 years. It is believed to be the oldest cemetery in the Middle East.
There was an interesting find in one of the graves. Next to a person’s remains were the remains of a red fox. Researchers believe this could be proof that humans kept red foxes as pets.
Early Cemeteries Show Us the Lives Before the Deaths
While many people may think cemeteries are merely places where we bury our dead, they are really much more. Burial grounds can teach us about history, culture, beliefs, and religion. They can tell us about classes and society, as well as where people came from or migrated to.
If you visit some of these locations or dig a little deeper into research, you’ll discover how humankind has progressed through the ages—and how it’s remained the same.
- “Europe’s Oldest Cemetery Reveals Its Secrets – Mysterious Graves Discovered” Feb. 12, 2016. MessagetoEagle.com. www.messagetoeagle.com/europes-oldest-cemetery-reveals-its-secrets-mysterious-graves-discovered/
- Curry, Andrew. “Mysterious Graves Discovered at Ancient European Cemetery” Jan. 11, 2016. NationalGeographic.com. www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/02/160211-oldest-cemetery-burial-europe-baby-upright-germany-hunter-gatherer/
- Japan-Guide.com. Okunoin Temple. www.japan-guide.com/e/e4901.html
- “St. Croix Island, The Lost French Colony of Maine.” New England Historical Society. www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/st-croix-island-lost-french-colony-maine/
- McNish, James.”Ancient Human DNA Recovered from the Oldest Cemetery in Africa,” March 16, 2018. Natural History Museum. www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2018/march/ancient-human-dna-recovered-from-the-oldest-cemetery-in-africa.html
- “Oldest Cemeteries in the World.” Oldest.com. www.oldest.org/culture/cemeteries/
- Jewish Museum in Prague. Old Jewish Cemetery. www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/explore/sites/old-jewish-cemetery/
- “Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery of Athens Archaeology Site and Museum.” Matt Barrett’s Athensguide.com. www.athensguide.com/kerameikos.html
- Worms Tourism. The Jewish Cemetery “Holy Sands” (in German “Heiliger Sand”). www.worms.de/en/tourismus/
- Popva, Tatiana. “New Discoveries on the Sculptures of Oleni Island.” Folklore, Vol. 18 and 19. www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol18/oleni_is.pdf
- Unesco.org. Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery in Najaf. whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5578/
- ScienceDaily.com. “Anthropologists discover earliest cemetery in Middle East,” Feb. 2, 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110202132609.htm