Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide
Getting old and dying… what can we say, it’s a six-foot downer. But there is a silver lining: figuring out how you want your remains to be treated can put the “fun” back in “funeral.” We at Trippy are all for donations to science, ceremonial scatterings of ash, and good ol’ fashioned burial, but it’s pretty interesting how different people around the globe deal with the dead.
Seasoned travelers that we are, scary cemeteries and creepy catacombs just don’t bring out the morbid curiosity in us any more. But there are some ridiculously cool historical and religious customs surrounding the dead that deserve a place in tour books. And a stop on your next trip.
Image: Latente www.latente.it/Flickr
1. Kalaupapa Leper Colony – Molokai, Hawaii
Although the competition for most beautifully situated mass grave might not be very “stiff,” (ok we’ll stop) Kalaupapa is an unquestioned winner. Located on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, it was also home to the Hawaiian Island’s Leper Colony, established in 1866. Also known as Hansen’s Disease, leprosy causes the upper layers of its victim’s skin to become numb, causes lesions, and makes appendages (especially fingers and toes) much more likely to become diseased… and fall off.
Although it is easily treated today with antibiotics, leprosy plagued the human population for over 4,000 years and leper colonies have existed to quarantine the infected for almost as long.
The Kalaupapa Leper Colony was located on the beach, with 1,600-foot cliffs on one side and ocean on the other creating a natural quarantine. This was the final resting place for thousands, mostly in unmarked graves along the water.
The view from the cemetery ain’t half bad, and surprisingly neither was the lepers’ day-to-day life. After visiting the colony, Jack London wrote that he had, “a disgracefully good time along with eight hundred of the lepers who were likewise having a good time.” Hey, sounds good enough to us.
Currently the colony has very strict rules regarding visitors. There is still a small community of former patients living there. To visit you must be invited by a current resident or take a scheduled tour.
2. Perfectly Preserved Mummies – Vac, Hungary
Image: Morbid Anatomy
Egyptians are famous for their mummies, but the residents of Vac didn’t do so badly either. Discovered in 1994 while renovating a Dominican Church, Vac’s mummy crypt was chock-full of some of the most elaborately dressed and well preserved modern mummies science has ever seen. By dumb luck the crypt, sealed in the 1700s, had the perfect conditions for mummy preservation — even the handmade stockings on the deceased were still perfectly intact.
Not only were the mummies pristine, but the elaborate decorations on the coffins blew researchers away. Each was hand-painted with a theme representing the deceased’s life, fulling celebrating it. We sure hope our life is remembered in such a beautiful way after we’re gone. Our remains becoming legends two hundred years after we die? Icing on the cake, baby.
The mummies and their coffins are on display in Vac, but they do occasionally tour around Hungary, so if you’re planning a visit make sure they’re at home when you go!
Image: Curious Expeditions/Flickr
3. Neptune Memorial Reef – Miami, Florida
Swimming with the fishes might not be everyone’s idea of a great way to leave one’s body behind. But having our remains encased in concrete and lovingly placed in an underwater city? Doesn’t really seem so bad to us. Opened in 2007, Neptune Memorial Reef is a complete underwater cemetery, 40 feet down. It also serves as a man-made reef that supports natural fish habitats.
Although friends and family members often visit their deceased scuba-diving loved ones there, it also draws celeb stalkers (of sorts): the Guinness World Record oldest diver is interred in a prime spot on the memorial reef.
The reef is open to all scuba divers – even if you’re not in mourning or celeb stalking.
4. Daisen Kofun – Osaka, Japan
Spectacular and almost totally unknown, imperial Japanese burial mounds (aka kofuns) from the third to sixth centuries AD are the pyramids of the Asian world. Shaped like a keyhole, kofuns served not only as oversized caskets but as a place an emperor could spend eternity with his most prized possessions. The biggest of them all is Daisen Kofun, built for Emperor Nintoku. Over 1,500 feet long and 1,000 feet wide, you can only really appreciate its scale from above.
Surprisingly, instead of capitalizing on the kofuns, the Japanese government has prohibited any excavation or research into them since the 1970s. There are three moats surrounding the Daisen Kofun, and entry is strictly forbidden.
Unlike the barren desert home of the pyramids, we like the lush greenery of the kofun. Who wouldn’t want their remains and greatest treasures to hang out, undisturbed, for thousands of years?
5. Sedlec Ossuary/The Bone Church – Prague, Czech Republic
When the 13th-century abbot of the Sedlec Monastery returned from the Grave of the Lord (aka, Jesus) in Jerusalem with a handful of soil to spread around his cemetery, we’re pretty sure he didn’t realize quite the fervor it would cause. The cemetery immediately became the hottest place to get buried in Bohemia, and soon the church was overflowing with 30,000 decaying bodies.
Something had to be done to make more room for the freshly deceased. And so in 1870, a woodcarver was hired to take the old bones and turn them into decorations for the church. What he came up with is a macabre art project of epic proportion. Highlights include the church’s chandelier — made from every bone in the human body — an incredible coat of arms, and the decorative skulls everywhere you look.
Although we’re not so keen on the whole buried-and-then-unearthed thing, we do think it would be pretty cool for our bones to live forever as a work of art. Especially one as creepy-cool as this. Plus the ossuary is now a well known tourist attraction, so visiting from Prague is easy.
6. Hanging Graves of the Toraja – Torajaland, Indonesia
The Toraja people of Torajaland have maintained an incredibly traditional lifestyle, and continue to “bury” their dead the same way they have for hundreds of years – by hanging them from a cliff and then holding a massive feast in their honor.
There are two distinct burial sites in Torajaland, and one is significantly more appealing than the other. The first is called Ke’te’ kesu and the dead here are put into wooden caskets that are strung from the sheer face of a granite cliff. Since natural materials are used, the coffins eventually rot and break, and their contents scatter below. This doesn’t seem ideal to us.
The second site, called Lemo, is home to a decidedly more civilized method. Once a solid rock wall, Lemo is now dotted with coffins carved into the rock face. Along with the coffins, balconies have also been built into the wall to support wooden effigies of the dead. These statues hang out together, happily watching over the coffins, and to us they look like they’re having a grand old time. We sure appreciate the social atmosphere and like the idea of chilling with our old friends for eternity.
Both these sites are total tourist traps, but we think they’re still something to check off the bucket list.
7. Sky Burial – Tibet
From a Western point of view, it’s hard to imagine doing anything with a dead body other than burying or burning. When you live near an abundance of soft ground or firewood, this makes sense. But for Tibetans that was certainly not the case.
Living above the tree line on perma-frozen ground, Tibetans found other ways to dispose of their dead. Sky burial is an ancient process of stripping the body and leaving it on high ground for birds of prey to dispose of naturally. This may seem savage or horrific, but we really like the idea that when we’re done with our bodies they could become food for fearsome, incredible birds.
And if you’re brave enough to watch, good for you. But if we made it to a sky burial, we would probably have to cover our eyes.