There is perhaps nothing else so distinctive of the condition and character of a people as the method in which they treat their dead.
- William Tegg, 1876
Throughout the history of human civilization, different cultures mourn and treat the dead differently. Some, like Tibetan Buddhists, have no use for burials as they dispose the dead by feeding corpses to vultures or by burning them in funeral pyres. Most cultures, however, show their respect by burying the dead, sometimes in complex and ornate tombs, crypts, and catacombs.
This article takes a look at ten of the most fascinating final resting places around the world, from the largest prehistoric burial mound in Europe to the the tombs of pharaohs to the most beautiful mausoleum in the world:
The burial mound of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland is definitely one of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in the world. Build between 3300 BC - 2900 BC, it is the also the world's oldest surviving building (it's older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt).
Newgrange is impressive: the circular mound is 250 feet (76 m) across and 40 feet (12 m) high. It covers an entire acre (4046 m²). A long tunnel under the mound leads to a high-domed burial chamber, a corbelled vault with ceilings made of huge, interlocking stone slabs.
The entrance to Newgrange is marked with a huge curbstone that is elaborately carved with "megalithic art," which includes spiral and concentric arc motifs chipped into the stone with flint tools.
Newgrange burial mound. Image: mike nl [Flickr]
The wall of Newgrange. Image: Barbara y Eugenio [Flickr]
The engraved slab in front of Newgrange's entrance. Image: mike nl [Flickr]
The Toraja people in Sulawesi, Indonesia, have what is probably the most complex funeral ritual in the world. When someone dies, the funeral is attended by a lot of people and can last for days! But that's not the strange part - this is: the funeral ceremony is often held weeks, months, or even years after the death (to give the family of the deceased time to raise enough money for expenses).
Torajans can wait that long because they believe that death is not a sudden event but instead a gradual process towards the afterlife (if you're wondering about the smell - the dead body is embalmed within the first few days of death, then stored in a secret place until the funeral ceremony).
After much partying (including the slaughter of one or several water buffaloes), the dead is buried in a stone cave carved out of a rocky cliff. A wood-carved effigy called tau tau, carved with the likeness of the dead person is then placed in the balcony of the tomb to represent the dead and watch over their remains.
Toraja cave tombs with balconies, filled with tau tau. Image: Kaeru [Flickr]
"In Tana Toraja, everything revolves around death. The graves can be very sophisticated yet sometimes, long after the coffins are destroyed by time, people gently place bones along natural cave 'racks'. Often, the bones are offered cigarettes or various offerings. This is supposed to prevent dead ancestors from bringing bad luck and otherwise making the lives of the living miserable."
Image: phitar [Flickr]
The gothic church Westminster Abbey in London, United Kingdom was established by Benedictine monks in the tenth century (and rebuilt in the 13th century by King Henry III) - since then it has evolved into both the coronation church for English royalty and the final resting place of monarchs.
Though at first Westminster Abbey was the burial place of kings, aristocrats, and monks, it soon became the tomb-of-choice (if there is such a thing) for the who's who in England. Poets and writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Alfred Tennyson; as well as scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Ernest Rutherford were all interred there.
Westminster Abbey. Image: Inetours
Newton's grave at Westminster Abbey. Image: Sacred Destination
There are more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, with the largest and most famous being the complex of pyramids in Giza Necropolis, Cairo, Egypt. This complex consists of the Great Pyramid of Giza (tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu or Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Great Sphinx statue, as well as several other smaller satellite pyramids.
Let's take, for instance, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When it was completed in 2560 BC, the pyramid was 481 feet (147 m) tall with each base side being 758 feet (231 m) wide. The blocks weigh about 1.5 tons each, with the internal granite blocks used as the roof of the burial chamber being about 80 tons each. The ancient Egyptians knew what they were doing: the base sides have a mean margin of error of only 2 1/3 inch (58 mm)! Needless to say, it is an amazing work of engineering.
The Pyramids of Giza. Image: liber [Flickr]
The Great Sphinx. Image: ironmanix [Flickr]
The Pyramids of Giza are not too far from the urban sprawl of Cairo.
Image: graspnext [Flickr]
Valley of the Kings
Even if you don't know much about the Valley of the Kings, a burial ground of ancient Egyptian pharaohs and one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, chances are you know about one of its occupants: King Tut and the Curse of the Pharaohs that accompany his grave.
In 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered and opened the tomb of Tutankhamen - despite warnings that "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King." Lord Carnarvon, the funder of the expedition, was the first to die: he was bitten by a mosquito and later accidentally lashed the bite while shaving. His wound became infected and he died of blood poisoning.
Whether the "mysterious" deaths associated with the Curse of the Pharaoh actually had anything to do with opening of the tombs or just great copy to sell newspaper, scientists did recently discover that the tombs indeed contained potentially dangerous molds, bacteria, toxins, and even hazardous gases.
Valley of the Kings. Image: Shelby PDX [Flickr]
The tomb of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings. Image: Hajor [wikipedia]
Tomb of Ramses III in Luxor, Valley of the Kings. Image: Peter J. Bubenik [wikipedia]
Sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Merenptah in the KV8 tomb of the Valley of the Kings.
Image: Hajor [wikipedia]
Luxor Temple. Image: mike nl [Flickr]
Catacombs of Paris
Officially called les carrières de Paris or "the quarries of Paris," the Catacombs of Paris is a network of underground tunnels and rooms that used to be Roman-era limestone quarries.
In the late 1700s, Paris was suffering from diseases caused by improper burials and mass graves in church cemeteries. Local authorities decided that they would remove thousands of bones and place them stacked in the abandoned underground quarries.
Today, the entrance to the catacombs is restricted and only a small portion of the 186 miles (300 km) worth of underground tunnels is accessible to the public. Secret entrances to the Catacombs, however, dotted Paris - urban explorers have found access via sewers, manholes and even the Paris Metro subway system.
Catacombs of Paris. Bones from the former Magdalene cemetery, deposited in 1844 in the western ossuary (bone repository) and transferred to the catacombs in 1859. Image: Vlastimil Juricek [wikipedia]
Wall of bones in the Catacombs of Paris. Image: Ivan Paganacci [Flickr]
In 1974, local farmers in Xi'an, China, discovered a vast underground complex of mausoleum while drilling for water. They had serendipitously stumbled upon the burial ground of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor and the unifier of China.
According to legends, the First Emperor was buried alongside great treasures inside a tomb with pearl-laced ceilings (in a pattern that represented the cosmos) and channels dug in the ground with flowing mercury to represent the rivers of China. But the most famous feature of the tomb is the Terracota Army, about 8,000 life-like and life-sized statues of soldiers buried alongside Qin Shi Huangdi to help the Emperor rule in the afterlife.
Terracota army. Image: MichaelTyler [Flickr]
Image: mkools [Flickr]
Each face and pose of the Terracota army soldier is distinct from the others. Image: Peter Morgan [wikipedia]
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
When the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy, outgrew its original cemetery in the 16th century, monks excavated the catacomb below it and began a bizarre tradition that lasted until the 19th century.
The Capuchin monks mummified the bodies of the dead, dressed them up in everyday clothing and then put them on display on the monastery walls. Apparently, it was quite a status symbol to be entombed in the Capuchin monastery - prominent citizens of the town would ask to be preserved in certain clothing or even have the clothes changed on a regular basis according to contemporary fashion!
When the last body was interred in the late 1800s, there were 8,000 mummies on the walls of the Capuchin monastery and in the catacombs.
Capuchin Catacombs. Image: deadgoodbooks [Flickr]
Mummies on the wall of the Capuchin Catacombs. Image: Kircher Society
The Sedlec Ossuary resides in a small Roman Catholic chapel in Sedlec, Czech Republic. If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't have guessed that inside the unassuming building is an ossuary containing about 40,000 human skeletons artistically arranged to form decorations, chandeliers, and furnishings!
In the 13th century, an abbot returned to Sedlec with a small amount of earth from Golgotha, the site of Jesus' crucifixion, and sprinkled it all over the abbey's cemetery. This made the grounds of the church a desirable burial site and over centuries thousands of people were buried there.
In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver was hired to put the heaps of bones in order. He decided to make a work of art out of the skeletal remains: a chandelier made from skull and bones, a coat of arms of the family that paid him to do the work, and even an "artist's signature" done in bone, of course!
Little would you suspect what lies inside ... Image: currybet [Flickr]
Entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary. Image: Curious Expeditions [Flickr]
The chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary. Image: B10m [Flickr]
The Schwarzenberg family's coat of arms, done with at least one of every
bone in the body. Image: goldberg [Flickr]
No article on tombs is complete without the Taj Mahal, a magnificent mausoleum in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal was built in 1631 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who was devastated when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth. Grief stricken, he ordered that the most beautiful mausoleum be built.
Taj Mahal is an amazing architectural wonder: the marble tomb in the center of the complex is flanked on four corners by minarets. The massive central dome, called the onion dome because of its shape, is striking in its symmetrical perfection. Finials and calligraphy are everywhere.
Inside the Taj Mahal is even more ornate: Precious and semi-precious gemstones are inlaid into the the intricately carved marble panels that serve as walls. The caskets of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are decorated with gems and inscribed with calligraphy, reciting the 99 names of God.
The story of the Taj Mahal actually didn't end with the completion of its buildings: shortly after its completion, Shah Jahan fell ill and a power struggle amongst his four sons ensued. The victor, Aurangzeb, locked the king in the Fort of Agra, where he remained until he died. Legend has it that he spent the remainder of his life gazing at the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved wife, from the window of his prison.
Taj Mahal from a distance. Image: Christopher Chan [Flickr]
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Image: micbaun [Flickr]
The tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Image: William Donelson [wikipedia]
Here is another one that didn't quite make the list:
City of the Dead in Northern Ossetia, Russia
In the remote, rugged Gizel valley of Northern Ossetia, Caucasus, Russia, there is a set of stone buildings that from a distance look like a regular village - but with one important detail: it is not for the living. A closer look inside the buildings with slanted slate roof reveal something gruesome: mummified bodies dressed in their best clothes and shoes with hair tidily combed.
Local legends have it that in the 18th century, a plague swept through Ossetia. The clans built quarantine houses for sick family members, who were provided with food, but not freedom to move about, until death claimed their lives. A slow and painful way to go, indeed.
City of the Dead in Northern Ossetia. Image: dziadek.mroz [Flickr]
Image: dziadek.mroz [Flickr]
I'll be the first to acknowledge that this list is subjective and far from complete - if you have any suggestions of a final resting place that should be included, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a comment.