28 Mind-Blowing Atlas Obscura Stories Funeral Directors Will Love
Feb 15, 2018
If you could travel to any location on the globe, where would you go?
As a funeral director, this question might lead you to sigh as you try to remember the last time you took a vacation or how long you may have to wait before you take another. The lifestyle of a funeral director does not allow for spontaneous trips to distant locales. But just because you can’t travel often doesn’t mean you can’t discover new and exotic places every day. The Internet offers a portal into every hidden corner of the planet and no website has done a better job mapping them out than AtlasObscura.com.
“Let curiosity be your compass” the website instructs and one could literally get lost for hours following these directions. You can explore fascinating wonders, unusual monuments or peculiar relics from the comfort of your computer chair. For instance, we were thrilled to discover a ‘huge and bizarre’ sculpture park only an hour from ASD, but a tad horrified to learn that Duffy's Cut, a mass grave of Irish immigrants who were killed by mysterious circumstances, was only a short 15 miles away from our town. A quick look at the definitive map of the world’s extraordinary sights will show you what mysteries are hiding in your back yard.
Our love for Atlas Obscura began when we discovered a treasure trove of stories that would inspire and fascinate funeral professionals. You can feast your eyes on some amazing passion projects that were created out of grief or learn about how archeology sheds new light on early funeral practices. From ancient tomb discoveries, to unique headstones, to cemeteries that look like they are on a different planet, we are certain more than one of the stories below will catch your attention. If you’ve ever wondered how the country of Iceland handles death or what happens when you bury someone with chestnut tree seeds in their pocket, this list is for you.
Strap in your seatbelt as we take you on a journey across the globe and through time to explore some of the most interesting death-related sites in the world on Atlas Obscura.
Distinct and Noteworthy Grave Sites
You could build an entire vacation around visiting impressive gravesites and in fact, many have. Just search ‘famous graves’ on Amazon and you’ll be amazed at the sheer number of guidebooks in existence. Finding time to visit sites that are not local to your area requires a lot of time and planning. Fortunately, Atlas Obscura has published a voluminous archive of notable final resting places to make it possible for you to visit faraway distinct graves from anywhere (or locate easily when you’re traveling). Below are a few that caught our eye.
“In rural Rushes Cemetery in Wellesley, Canada, one headstone stands out from the rest. Rather than the usual RIP, the Bean grave marker is etched with a crossword code. A message below the code urges, “Reader meet us in heaven.” It took over 100 years to decode this enigmatic epitaph for two buried brides. The epitaph drew curious visitors attempting to break the code to the little town of Wellesley over the following century. So many people came to make rubbings of the headstone that by the 1980s it was entirely illegible and had to be replaced with a replica.”
“A gnarled old tree looms over the tombstones in a small church graveyard. Its trunk bent at an odd angle, it seems to crouch over the ground, its knotted branches outstretched in all directions. According to local legend, this Spanish Sweet Chestnut tree sprouted from seeds stored within a dead sailor’s pocket. Supposedly, the 16th-century Spanish sailor buried beneath it had been carrying chestnuts with him while on his maritime journey, likely to ward off scurvy.”
“In 1886, the year following Clover’s death, Henry toured Japan with artist John LaFarge. Upon his return, Henry commissioned Irish-American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to memorialize her by casting a bronze statue. Upon his return he instructed Saint-Gaudens to use Buddhist philosophy’s take on death and grief as inspiration, a philosophy he had encountered in Japan. The Adams Memorial was erected in Section E of Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC in 1891. The finished sculpture is not of Clover herself. It instead depicts an anonymous figure representing the range of Henry’s emotions surrounding her death, as well as the abstract nature of life and death.”
"Sinbad, a mixed breed dog that served for seven years aboard the Campbell, a Coast Guard ship that defended American convoys during World War II, is one of the most beloved American mascots. After his death, a granite monument was erected in his honor at the base of the flagpole at Barnegat Light Station, a decommissioned lighthouse now serving as a Coast Guard emergency operations center in Barnegat Light, New Jersey."
“To bury oneself under a headstone in the shape of a shark, say, or a palace-sized tomb carved out of a giant boulder, you’d have to be a little extraordinary. Often the stories that accompany these tombstones are larger than life. And death too, for that matter.”
Discoveries About Early Funeral and Death Practices
What can we learn from studying the funeral traditions of our ancestors? There is no limit to the amount of useful information that society can glean from digging into the roots of ancient death practices. Archeology has shed new light on how rituals and beliefs have evolved overtime by unearthing early tombs and burial sites. Scholars have demystified many previously held notions about how different cultures reacted to death in the past. While we might not be able to know with absolute certainty what a funeral held 10,000 years ago would have looked like, scientists are focusing that picture with new discoveries every day. Below are just a few recent ones that got our attention.
“In 1957, A team of archaeologists from the Penn Museum excavated a mysterious mound in Gordion, Turkey. They found a wooden structure, and inside, a royally-dressed body, surrounded by the remnants of a feast. The tomb is the oldest, intact wooden structure ever discovered and held a large collection of beautiful bronze vessels. The cauldrons and jugs contained pounds of residues from a funeral meal. On September 23, 2000, the Penn Museum held a replica feast.”
“It’s been a few millennia, so flecks of paint have sloughed off of the lifelike portrait, which was fastened to a mummified body during Egypt’s Coptic period, nearly 2,000 years ago. These images are often described as precursors to Western portraiture and have captivated researchers for years. Known as Fayum paintings, for the Egyptian site where they were excavated, they straddle both Greco-Roman and Egyptian styles."
“Fake post-mortem photos, whether categorized in error or intentionally mislabeled to sell for a profit, have in recent years become widespread on the Internet. Though unfortunate, it’s also understandable: there’s clearly something compelling about a lurid, not-so-distant culture engaging with death in a way we don’t. In truth, the propped-up people in Victorian “post-mortems” look alive for a much simpler reason: because they are. Posing stands were used to help living models hold still for that era’s longer exposures.”
“The Morgue may have existed so that friends and family of the dead could identify anonymous bodies, but few visitors came with any intention of looking for a missing person. They had a single goal: to see the dead up-close. The more gruesome or mysterious a person’s death, the more tourists showed up to see their body. By the end of the 20th century, the Morgue attracted so many visitors that nearly every Paris guidebook mentioned it.”
“Barely four miles off the Swedish coast, in the indigo Baltic Sea, the rocky island of Öland was once witness to a gruesome mass murder. In 2010, archaeologists uncovered skeleton after skeleton there—bodies that had initially been left unburied. Now, a discovery of two gold rings and a coin at the site may hint at the motive behind what appears to have been a particularly bloody, personal attack."
Cemeteries With Character
The gothic beauty and rich history found within cemeteries hold a special wonder for many people. Historians, artists, horticulturists, and many others find a quiet sanctuary within the gates of these sacred burial grounds. Cemeteries often have their very own distinct personalities that are supported by features such as stunning landscapes, unique characteristics or historical landmarks. While some may be across the globe, others could be hiding right in your backyard. If you’re looking for a new and interesting cemetery to get lost in, our list below is just scratching the surface (no pun intended!). Be sure to explore Atlas Obscura’s Atlas for even more!
“Hundreds of boat-shaped headstones fill this graveyard as part of a centuries-old custom with mysterious origins.”
“A spooky juxtaposition of caves and graves gives this legend-filled cemetery a particularly haunting vibe.”
“Tucked into the scrubby woods near Estonia’s Ämari Air Base is a pilot’s graveyard where Soviet airmen are buried beneath the fins of the very aircraft they likely died in.”
“Visitors come to Hollywood Forever Cemetery to see the final resting places and eclectic graves of dead Hollywood stars, but in certain corners of the graveyard they’ll find attractions that are very much alive.”
“A small town Romanian cemetery filled with darkly humorous gravestones. Over 600 wooden crosses bear the life stories, dirty details, and final moments of the bodies they mark. Displayed in bright, cheery pictures and annotated with limericks are the stories of almost everyone who has died of the town of Săpânţa.”
“Thousands of trimmed trees fill this cemetery, carving verdant stripes and shapes into a landscape otherwise dominated by gray graves. They look like topiary tombstones, planted to live alongside the traditional stone memorials to the dead."
Grief Passion Projects
There is no cure for grief – that much is certain. Nothing can take away the pain of losing someone who was close to your heart. However, many people have found comfort by turning to creative pursuits to help them cope with the death of a loved one. These stories demonstrate how grief can produce something remarkable. Loved ones are driven to do something extraordinary in memory of another, whether to work through their loss, carry out a loved one’s wish or show the world how special the person was to them. Below are a few stories about grief passion projects that really captured our notice.
“After Wendy Whiteley’s husband died in 1992, she realized she needed an outlet for her grief. To distract herself from the pain, she began clearing garbage and weeds from an old abandoned railway yard. She’s spent the past 25 years transforming the patch of land into something incredibly beautiful: a secret, hidden garden.”
“This death mask is an artifact of one of the more dramatic moments in the life of George-Jacques Danton, the man without whom the French Revolution would not have happened, many scholars say. The people's champion of the French Revolution was so overcome by grief at his wife's death he exhumed her in the dead of night to make one final replica of her face.”
“Sarah Winchester inherited $20 million after her husband died in 1881, and not long afterward moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to an eight-room farmhouse in orchard-studded Santa Clara Valley. She got to work almost immediately. A dedicated crew of carpenters built new rooms so quickly that no one bothered to draw up blueprints. Many speculate that she threw herself into her all-consuming building project to feel closer to her late husband—architecture had long been one of William Winchester’s passions.”
“An elderly widow still operates the incredibly detailed model railroad she and her husband built by hand.”
There are a lot of ways to memorialize someone. A person may have a gravesite and several statues or monuments dedicated to them in different parts of the world, especially if he or she was very well known or traveled a great deal. In other cases, if no gravesite exists as in the case of a private cremation, fans and admirers may create their own unofficial tribute to the person’s life. Monuments are also often constructed at death sites, so if a person died unexpectedly they might have a gravesite as well as a monument in the place where their life ended. There are many reasons that factor into the creation of memorials and it is fascinating to learn about these motivations and to see the unconventional monuments that result from them. Here are a few that piqued our interest:
“Beloved country singer Patsy Cline died on March 5, 1963 when the airplane she was riding in plummeted into the Tennessee wilderness, and the crash site is now remembered by a meditative boulder.”
“From 1906 until 1977, all U.S. presidents had an official yacht. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, that seafaring vessel was the USS Potomac. The elevator hidden in a smokestack now serves as a monument to the former president.”
“A very peaceful, quiet spot in Viretta Park located next to Kurt Cobain’s former house offers an unofficial memorial to the late Nirvana frontman.”
“Frank Zappa never went to Lithuania and had absolutely no connection to the country. However, the youth of Lithuania had a connection to Zappa—he was the icon of their newfound freedoms. This is evidenced in the Frank Zappa memorial near Vilnius' city center.”
Death and Society
How does society handle challenges that are posed by death? This fascinating question is addressed within many articles published by Atlas Obscura. Since the dawn of time, man has been tasked with figuring out how to tend to our dead and responding to difficulties that arise. Problems caused by extreme weather, major disasters, changing attitudes and cemetery overpopulation have put many to the test, from early civilizations to 21 st century funeral directors. Here are a few stories that really intrigued us:
“There is also the tradition of not embalming the body—a practice that has proven to be quite inconvenient for foreign families that face the tragedy of losing a loved one in Iceland. The maximum period before burial is eight days, so family members have a week to make all the arrangements pertaining to the treatment and shipping of the body and fill out all the necessary paperwork, often from abroad.”
“There is a seafood place near Halifax Harbour Harbour that was once home to the city’s oldest mortuary. It’s now the Five Fishermen Restaurant, but was once Snow & Company Undertakers, who tended to the bodies of not one, but two major tragedies of the early 20th century.”
“Burning the dead is an ancient practice, and in some cultural traditions, it’s a thousands-year-old norm. Today, cremation in the U.S. is soaring in popularity; by 2018, CANA predicts that over 50 percent of Americans will choose to have their bodies cremated. But in late 19th-century America, cremation was a radical, tradition-bucking idea.”
"Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery has been officially closed and abandoned since 2011, its 380 acres now overgrown, the over 85,000 graves consumed by an encroaching forest. Incorporated in 1855, it was once among the most elite of the Victorian cemeteries. Now you’re lucky if you can find a family member’s grave without rubbing against poison ivy. How such a significant place fell into such ruin is complicated, and years after its last burial it’s still effectively without an owner."
There has never been a better time to have a curious mind. Questions that once remained locked in your head for years can now be answered with a little Internet research. Places that you could only imagine before can now be seen in great detail from any computer or smart phone. This accessibility is a something every funeral director should keep in mind. No matter how long you’ve been working, there is always something new to learn. Reading about new discoveries, interesting places or historical accounts will keep your brain sharp and help you stay more informed. And when it comes to stories that are of interest to funeral directors, no other site can rival the content published by AtlasObscura. We hope you’ll take our word and “let your curiosity be your compass.”
Which one of the stories above was your favorite? Are there any we left off our list that you would recommend? Share with us in the comments below! Be sure to follow ASD on Facebook and Twitter where we regularly share content from Atlas Obscura!
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com