During Halloween in the United States, many lawns and stoops are festooned with creepy fake headstones displaying spooky epitaphs meant to elicit fear and trepidation. But around the world burial grounds have often been an everyday part of living.
Different cultures have an infinite variety of beliefs that are manifest into many ways death is viewed and the deceased are buried. What follows are descriptions of some unusual cemeteries throughout the world, as well as examples of how the growth of civilization has impacted some older final resting places. Many are worth a visit — the next time we can all visit places.
Neptune Memorial Reef, Key Biscayne, Florida
Promotion material for this cemetery for only cremated remains proclaims it offers “a new tradition for visiting loved ones.” That may be an understatement in more ways than one.
First, the visit needs to take place 40 feet underwater.
Second, cremated remains are placed inside rows of artistically designed columns, or are incorporated into sea-floor sculptures that resemble marine animals natural to the local ecosystem, such as a starfish or shell.
The water-enclosed graves are arranged in a pattern inspired by an artistic representation of the Lost City of Atlantis. Paths radiate out from an underwater courtyard that contains benches for visiting SCUBA-certified relatives, although their conversations may be a bit bubbly and difficult to understand.
The reef was designed by sculptor Kim Brandell, who has created works of art for a range of five-star hotels, casinos, restaurants and high-end residences.
Memorialization placements in the reef are created by carefully blending cremated remains with a natural concrete substance, which is then molded and secured within the reef’s architectural elements, along with an engraved memorial plaque.
The graveyard doubles as an ecological reef supporting a developing marine ecosystem and has been designed to create a marine habitat. For example, vertical structures were shaped to support corals and coralline algae.
By the time it is complete, the reef will cover 16 acres and include more than 250,000 memorials encased inside 5,000 columns.
If you always pined for oceanfront property, this final resting spot may be the solution.
The hanging cemeteries
If a fear of heights is a problem while you are living, these unusual cemeteries found in China, Indonesia and the Philippines are not where you would want to be buried. In fact, you would not be buried at all. You would be dangling on the side of a cliff high above ground, with your casket nailed to the cliff wall, placed on a protrusion from the rock face, or suspended at the end of a rope.
There are several explanations for the midair burials, but the real mystery of why people began to be buried in this manner may never be known. Some believe the position places the remains closer to their ancestral spirits. Others speculate the reason is to keep a body safe from animals and grave robbers.
Chiesa Dei Morti, Urbania, Italy
Translated as “Church of the Dead,” since 1833 the chapel has displayed 18 mummies standing in individual glass cases behind the altar.
Their presence in what is referred to as “the cemetery of the mummies,” is the result of the 1805 Napoleonic St. Cloud edict that the dead must be buried outside the city limits. When digging up corpses, authorities were surprised to unearth several deceased in a perfectly preserved state.
The mummies were brought to the church for research and displayed behind the altar by prior Vincenzo Piccini, who believed mummification may have been an attempt for an extended life. He was also the alchemist for the Brotherhood of Good Death, a group founded in 1567, which took it upon themselves to pay for the burial of the poor and keep records of the deaths.
Today guides escort visitors through the chapel recounting why the mummies ended up as they are and describing the way each perished, which includes hanging, being stabbed and being buried alive.
Whether Piccini was correct or not remains a mystery, but he ensured he was added to the collection upon his demise. His corpse is wearing a white and black cassock and holding a stick bearing the likeness of two skulls, the emblem of the brotherhood.
New Lucky Restaurant, Ahmedabad, India
Enjoying a meal takes on a different meaning in this restaurant. Built over a cemetery, 12 graves pierce the floor near the tables allowing the deceased to “join” diners as silent dinner companions.
The graves are believed to be remnants of an old Muslim cemetery of followers of a 16th-century Sufi saint. Each morning the graves, which are protected by white iron grills, are cleaned and decorated with a single flower.
Far from being a deterrent to customers, the restaurant has flourished for over 50 years. Many diners believe the presence of the graves makes them feel they are in the presence of God. Other patrons offer prayers to the deceased, and many regular diners believe sitting near the graves brings them good luck, hence the name “New Lucky.”
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Eklutna, Alaska
Instead of the usual gray slab lying atop a grave or the traditional engraved gray tombstone, this graveyard is filled with more than 100 colorful “spirit houses.” Built over the gravesites, the low structures are painted vivid colors representing the life of the deceased.
In keeping with local tradition, once placed, the memorials are not maintained. The belief is that what is taken from the Earth must be allowed to return to the earth, so the spirit houses are left to decay and return to dust.
Merry Graveyard, Sapanta, Romania
“Merry” is an appropriate name for this Romanian cemetery. Tradition for some local sects is that death is not something to be viewed as solemn, but instead is a time of joy and anticipation of a better life.
To create a happy memory of the departed, gravesites are decorated with colorful naïve paintings and engraved crosses describing the deceased and incorporating scenes from their lives.
The origin of the custom is attributed to Stan Ioan Patras, who was born in Sapanta in 1908, and at the age of 14 had already begun carving crosses for the local cemetery. By 1935, Patras was adding clever or ironic poems about the deceased, as well as painting the crosses with an image of the departed. Often in the art he included the manner the individual died.
Patras died in 1977, having carved his own cross. He left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop. Pop has since spent the last three decades continuing the work and has turned Patras’ home into a museum.
Crowley Mausoleum, Decatur, Georgia
A theme song for this cemetery might be “they paved paradise and left the cemetery.” But they did put up a parking lot. Originally part of the James M. Crowley 500-acre farm, since the late 1820s family members were buried on a hill on what then was rural property.
As Decatur grew and engulfed the property, parcels were gradually sold. When the final plot of land was sold to be developed as a commercial mall in the 1960s, the Crowley graveyard was included.
Although the developer agreed to leave the graves untouched, the surrounding land was graded to a level 12 feet below the hilltop graves. Stone walls were added around the perimeter of the gravesite, creating an elevated island amid the parking lot.
Today the graves remain interred on the “roof” of the mausoleum, and although it is possible to walk up to the base of the cemetery the entrance to the mausoleum is chained and padlocked.
The mall eventually closed. Now the cemetery is in a Walmart parking lot.
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France
Interested in increasing the chance your final resting place will have visitors? This might be the perfect place for your grave since it is known as the world’s most visited cemetery. Yearly 3.5 million people stop by to pay their respects to the departed.
Be aware your grave will be competing with a lot of burial sites scattered over 110 acres, and home to some incredibly ornate graves ranging from gothic structures to ancient mausoleums. It is also the final destination of many famous people including Oscar Wilde and Frédéric Chopin.
The good news is that Père Lachaise is still an operating cemetery and accepting new burials. The bad news is that it has been open since 1804 and space is scarce. To squeeze an increasing number of bodies into a finite space, the remains of multiple family members may be added into the same crypt once an earlier body has decomposed.
Also, to be buried alongside the estimated 1 million plus people on the grounds you must have lived in Paris or died there.
Okunoin Cemetery, Koya, Japan
This cemetery is particularly unusual since according to the superstition of the Shingon Buddhist school, there are no dead here, but only spirits waiting for the resurrection of the future Buddha.
Perhaps that is why Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan with more than 200,000 gravestones and the tombstones of most of the major Japanese Buddhist figures.
The centerpiece of vast graveyard is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He is believed to remain alive inside in eternal meditation, waiting for the arrival of the future Buddha.
The mausoleum is illuminated by the glow of 10,000 lanterns, which are said to never to stop burning.