I like cemeteries. I find them peaceful, calming, often quite beautiful , sometimes dramatic and always full of the stories of interesting lives.
I made a road trip in 2008 based on driving from grave to grave of once-famous people I was interested in (sort of necro celebrity stalking … but the celebs can’t run away — and most people don’t know or care who they are anymore, anyway) — Louise Brooks to Rod Serling to Mark Twain to Jayne Mansfield to Billie Burke and Flo Ziegfield and many more in the NYC area (like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Judy Garland, Basil Rathbone and Babe Ruth), and on to Dash Hammett, Lee Marvin, John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy (the last four are all in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. Hammett and Marvin have the simple white stone government-issued markers of ordinary soldiers).
Granted, cemeteries are generally full of dead people. But I truly think the creepiest aspect of cemeteries is not the dead — it’s the strange and bizarre things the living do to memorialize the dearly departed.
Here then, in no particular order, is a look at some of the weird and macabre ways the living have chosen to honour/display the dead.
By the hundreds, coffins are wedged into caves and crevices, balanced on outcroppings and supports and suspended by ropes and vines across the limestone cliffs near the town of Saganda about 275 km north of Manila on the main Philippines island of Luzon.
Nobody knows how the practice began — or at least no one is telling — but the oldest coffins are about 200 years old and the most recent from the 1960s and 1970s.
Some coffins are made of boards nailed together, but many are carved from whole tree trunks.
One thing that is known is that it is a sign of communal respect to be placed among the hanging coffins — you have to have been married and had grandchildren to qualify.
Hanging coffins are not confined to the Philippines. Several societies in different parts of China also engaged in the hanging-coffin practice as long ago as 700 B.C.
The Catholic Church seems to have become especially adept at displaying its dead — particularly the pious and holy — in startling, dramatic fashion.
The practice of keeping mummified corpses (in their daily clothing) in underground crypts began (at least in Palermo) when the Capuchin monastery there ran out of space in its graveyard in the 16th Century.
First to be mummified and stored in the catacombs was a monk named Silvestro of Gubbio in 1599. The last (known) catacomb interment occurred in 1922. The early mummies were all monks, but slowly it became a status thing among the rich and noble of Palermo to be mummified and displayed in full attire in the catacombs under the monastery.
About 8,000 mummies now line the walls of the Palermo catacombs.
The catacombs are very dry, but the mummifying effect was done by dehydrating the bodies over racks of heated ceramic pipes and washing the bodies in vinegar.
In later years, many bodies were embalmed using a solution with the following formula: 1 part glycerin, 1 part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and 1 part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid.
One of the last bodies to be interred there was that of a two-year-old child named Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. Her body was embalmed using the above formula and, as you can see from the accompanying photo, it is still remarkably preserved.
The practice of keeping mummies and bones in catacombs and underground vaults — known as ossuaries — was widespread in Europe. Again, it was in large part due to the unavailability of burial ground in the cities that were growing around the monasteries and churches through medieval and Renaissance times.
The bones of thousands of monks and ordinary people are collected and on display in the catacombs of Paris and the Santa Maria della Concezione crypt in Rome, as well as elsewhere.
Near Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
As common as the practice was, the Sedlec Ossuary takes the prize for both Most Creative Display of Bones and Tackiest Disposal of Human Remains.
A Cistercian monastery and graveyard had been on the site since the 13th Century but, when a new church was built there about 1400, the monks began storing skeletons and bones in the church’s underground crypts because the burial ground was full.
The ossuary eventually held the skeletons of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people.
It was a huge mess down there, so a local handyman and woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, was hired in 1870 to put the ossuary in order.
Rint began by making four great piles of bones, but his creative instincts eventually took hold and he began making elaborate, intricate designs with the bones.
He made altars, statues, garlands, coats-of-arms, a giant chandelier (above, using at least one of every bone in the human body) and even spelled out his own name on a wall in bones.
Chamula/Ben Kilgour photo
San Juan Chamula, Mexico
Thousands of bodies lie in the rows of raised graves surrounding the church at San Juan Chamula in Mexico’s southern Chiapis state, although formal mass has not been held in the church since the 1960s when the last full-time priest left.
A priest from a neighbouring village visits once or twice a month to perform baptisms, but for the most part local shamans occupy the church, dispensing magic potions and medical — as well as religious — advice. Chicken sacrifices and ancient healing ceremonies are par for the course around this creepy cemetery.
Saint Louis Cemetery
New Orleans, Louisiana
Three old above-ground cemeteries in New Orleans bear the name Saint Louis, but the oldest and creepiest is Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, opened in the 1780s.
Because the water table was so close to the surface in New Orleans, the dead had to be buried in crypts and vaults above ground. It’s a very spooky place and not particularly safe to explore alone.
The New Lucky Restaurant is a popular eatery and tea shop in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state. It just happens to sit on top of an ancient Muslim graveyard — and eight of the old graves pop up randomly in the middle of the restaurant.
Staff and guests treat the graves with respect — although the shin-high structures occasionally trip an unsuspecting passerby — and the restaurant owner places one fresh flower on each grave every day.
Not much to say about this. It’s the first scientifically authenticated cemetery for warriors of the bloody Roman arenas.
Archeologists have found the remains of 67 individuals aged 20-30. Most had multiple wound markings from different episodes, so it appears these were honoured gladiators who had fought repeatedly before dying. Normally the arena dead were thrown to the lions or dumped on a midden garbage heap to rot.
The graveyard was first identified by gravestones which showed drawings of the dead in their gladiatorial attire.
The Merry Graveyard
Local carpenter and woodcarver Stan Ioan Patras decided in 1930 to start telling the lives of his fellow villagers in Sapanta when he made the wooden crosses to mark their graves in the local cemetery.
Stan would carve a picture of the dead person, showing him or her at work or even illustrating how the person died. The grave marker would often be accompanied by a short poem about the person.
Stan continued his happy work through the Depression, World War II and the repression of the communist regime, filling the Sapanta cemetery with joyful, brightly painted memorials to his dead friends and neighbours.
When Stan died in 1977, his two assistants built the biggest and brightest grave marker in the cemetery for their teacher and mentor.
Nouadhibo, Mauritania, West Africa
Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona