Great Graves: Exploring the most impressive tombs in Europe

There’s an element of pilgrimage in visiting the graves of departed heroes. Gazing onto the final resting places of national icons such as Beethoven and Napoleon is a window onto history and the ever-changing narratives that drive national identity. Exploring the great tombs in Europe offers an insight into each nation’s psyche, both past and present, and a snapshot of the forces that shaped the continent.

And Europe is blessed with more than its fair share of great graves. Dotted around the continent are tombs to conquerors and commanders, creative thinkers and composers, each providing one more puzzle piece in the jigsaw of human experience. Of the thousands of epic tombs in Europe, some are dusty ruins, others are ongoing sites of pilgrimage, but all offer a thoughtful reminder that time is fleeting, even for history’s greatest heroes.

Here’s my pick of Europe’s most fascinating tombs, catacombs and mausoleums.

The Maeshowe tumulus viewed from the air.
Maeshowe, viewed from the air © BM

Iron age interment in Orkney

If you were to spin around three times in Orkney and throw your backpack in any direction, there’s a pretty good chance it would land on some kind of tumulus or a Neolothic or Iron Age tomb. The islands are blessed with hundreds of relics from this misty period in history, when Scotland’s scattered tribes came together into what would later become known as the Pictish nation.

An easy ferry ride from the north coast of Scotland, or an even easier flight, mainland Orkney is studded with tombs and tumuli. Aligned to admit the midwinter sun, Maeshowe, 16km west of Kirkwall, looks like a grassy mound from a distance, but inside is Orkney’s most impressive chambered tomb, constructed nearly 5000 years ago, and grave-robbed and graffiti-ed by Vikings in the 11th century.

Over on South Ronaldsay, the Tomb of the Eagles near Isbister contained the bones of hundreds of humans and sea eagles when it was first opened in 1958. Today, access is via a mechanical trolley, which rolls through the narrow entrance, delivering visitors into the cavernous chambers beyond. With waves battering the seacliffs just metres from the site, it’s a powerfully evocative place to contemplate Scottish prehistory.

Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow
Lenin’s Mausoleum and the walls of the Kremlin©Leland Jackson/CC by 2.0

Lenin’s living legacy in Moscow

Unlike former friend Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Ilych Lenin (1870-1924) didn’t end his days with ‘an icepick that made his ears burn’ (thank you, The Stranglers) but that might only be because he didn’t live long enough to see the Communist dream unravel. He was certainly on the wrong side of Joseph Stalin by the time he suffered the stroke which ultimately led to his death in 1923.

While Trotsky was buried in a humble grave in Mexico City, Lenin received a full state funeral in Moscow, before being – to speak crudely – pickled and put on display like a medical specimen. Tucked against the walls to the Kremlin, Lenin’s red granite mausoleum still displays the conserved Communist in a glass-sided coffin, keeping the great leader presentable through regular re-embalming with a cocktail of acetic acid, ethyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

It’s obviously working: Lenin looks almost as fresh today as he did in life. Visiting the tomb is free, but bags and cameras have to be checked and there are strict rules of conduct, including removing your hat and a ban on putting your hands in your pockets. Shuffling into the darkness to view the eerily-white cadaver is certainly one of Russia’s more unusual tourist experiences.

Castel Sant'Angelo, the castle-like tomb of Hadrian
Night sky over Castel Sant’Angelo©Giuseppe Milo/CC by 2.0

Tomb or castle, you decide…

It would be news to a large number of Brits, but the Emperor Hadrian made only a single trip to Britain, in AD 122, and he never saw the completed wall dividing England and Scotland that bears his name. In fact, the hirsute Roman conqueror devoted most of his time to Rome, Greece, Africa and the Middle East, and rarely bothered himself with the affairs of one small island off the coast of France.

He did however secure himself a particularly spectacular burial site: Castel Sant’Angelo – a towering, cylindrical tomb made from time-eroded travertine and volcanic peperino stone (named for the cheese) that rises above the north bank of the Tiber at the end of a similarly ancient Roman bridge. It was raised to hold the emperor’s ashes between Ad 134 and AD 139, but looks rather more modern, thanks to a few thousand years of alterations by subsequent emperors, kings and popes.

While in Rome, it would be remiss to leave with dropping in on some of the city’s other famous tombs. The Via Appia Antica is lined with a string of dramatic Roman necropolises, including the Catacomb of San Sebastiano and Catacomb of San Callisto, with arcades of alcoves for corpses sprawling for kilometres below the streets of Rome. Visiting today is like going behind the scenes at a warehouse depot for the dead.

The Paris catacombs, one of the most crowded tombs in Europe
Skeletons stacked like firewood in the Paris Catacombs©Randy Connolly/CC by 2.0

Paris’ great boneyard

Hygiene is one of the first things that comes to mind as you wander around the massive subterranean bone house that is the Paris Catacombs. The bones of a staggering six million people are stacked like kindling in this massive underground ossuary, relocated from a string of overflowing Parisian cemeteries in the 19th century. The catacombs stand out from other tombs in Europe just for the sheer numbers, adding an apocalyptic air to proceedings.

With disease running rife in the dying years of the First Republic, hygiene was certainly the motivation for shifting the dead from their dignified graves to a network of abandoned limestone quarry tunnels beneath Paris. This was such a vast operation that it took almost two years to move the skeletons to their creepy new resting place.

Walking around the musty tunnels today, with bones piled up against the walls in ornate patterns (or in disorderly piles in abandoned tunnels that are only open to visitors on ‘dark tours’) it’s hard to tell if the catacombs are respectful or sacrilegious. The builders of the catacombs were certainly fans of using human skulls to make pretty patterns along the dark, dank passageways.

Oscar's Wilde's grave at Père-Lachaise cemetery
Handwritten messages cover the grave of Oscar Wilde©Stephan Rinke/CC by-SA 2.0

Graves of the willful and wise at Père-Lachaise cemetery

Many iconic figures ended their days in Paris, but it’s the poets and thinkers that have captured the world’s imagination. Oh, and the pop stars. Don’t forget the pop stars. At Père-Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement, the dead attract the kind of visitor numbers normally associated with national museums and the Taj Mahal. A staggering 3.5 million tourists file through the cemetery gates each year, in search of the final addresses of Jim Morrison (1943-1971) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

Visitors seeking European rather than Anglophone culture can swing by the graves of author Marcel Proust (1871-1922), singer Édith Piaf (1915-1963) and comic playwright Molière (1622-1673). One of the most popular graves for Parisians is the wish-fulfilling tomb of journalist Victor Noir (1848-1870), killed by Prince Pierre Bonaparte in a duel over a critical editorial in a Paris newspaper.

For reasons that are rather vague, but may have something to do with an exaggerated bulge in the trousers of the bronze effigy atop the tomb, Noir’s grave has become a site of pilgrimage for women seeking a husband or a child. Touching different parts of the statue is said to bring one or the other, hence the well-worn metal on the statue’s lips, feet and crotch.

Bones as ornaments in Kostnice v Sedlci chapel
Skulls keep guard at the chapel of Kostnice v Sedlci©Henry Burrows/CC by-SA 2.0

Bone chandeliers at Kostnice v Sedlci, Kutna Hora

East of Prague in the historic city of Kutna Hora, the church of Kostnice v Sedlci takes the ossuary idea and injects it with steroids. This cathedral to the macabre is decorated with the bones of some 70,000 citizens of Bohemia, many of them unfortunate victims of the Black Death and the Hussite Wars. We know who created this artistic arrangement of the dead – local woodcarver František Rint – because he signed his work in human bones on the wall.

Whether you are fascinated or horrified, it’s hard to deny that the dead are displayed with more creative spark than at most ossuaries. In this vaulted chapel, skulls and femurs are strung together into coats of arms, ornamental columns, ceremonial urns and grand chandeliers in a Gothic fantasy that stretches the boundaries of respect for the dead. The end result is actually rather beautiful, in a ‘palace of the goblin king’ kind of a way.

Memorials at Zentralfriedhof Cemetery
Memorials to Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart at Zentralfriedhof©Spencer Means/CC by-SA 2.0

Three composers for the price of one at Zentralfriedhof Cemetery in Vienna

Pity the poor people of Memphis, Tennessee. They only get the grave of one musical icon at Graceland; the lucky residents of Vienna get three in the graceful gardens of Zentralfriedhof Cemetery. In one landscaped corner of the funeral gardens are the tombs of Beethoven ( 1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), and a memorial to Mozart ( 1756-1791), standing in for the composer’s actual tomb, which is lost somewhere in the Sankt Marxer Friedhof graveyard, a few kilometres up the road.

If you fancy searching for the grave of Amadeus, you might solve one of the great mysteries of the 19th century. Even Mozart’s widow was unable to find the grave when she tried to locate it 17 years after Mozart’s death. One possible location is marked in the Sankt Marxer Friedhof cemetery, but whether Mozart’s bones lie buried beneath it is open to question. The Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg has a skull that they insist belongs to the great composer, but a forensic examination in 2006 was inconclusive.

Napoleon's mausoleum, one of the grandest tombs in Europe
The red porphyry sarcophagus of Napoleon©jpitha/CC by-SA 2.0

A grave fit for an emperor at Les Invalides

Paris gets a third outing on this list, thanks to the final resting place of Napoleon Boneparte, buried with outrageous ostentatiousness in the grand precincts of the Hôtel des Invalides. The mausoleum of France’s most famous son sits right beneath Les Invalides’ soaring dome inside a gleaming marble arcade. Below the sarcophagus, a circle of inlaid stone sunrays on the floor recalls Napoleon’s credo: ‘If I had to choose a religion, the sun as the universal giver of life would be my god.’

That such a tiny emperor required such a lavish tomb does raise the question of whether Boney was compensating for something. In fact, rumours of Napoleon’s diminished stature may be exaggerated; there is growing evidence that the height of the great emperor was measured in old French inches, rather than the shorter British inches, meaning that Napoleon’s stature was on a par with other Europeans of the time. Either way, his stately red porphyry sarcophagus is one of the grandest tombs in Europe, attended by an honour-guard of white marble angels.

Palermo's Capuchin catacombs
Suited mummies in the Palermo Catacombs©Gmihail at Serbian Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0 rs

The dapper dead at Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs

It’s easy to feel distant from the dead when the bones are polished clean and stacked into pretty patterns. At the Palermo Catacombs the deceased stand dressed in their funeral finest, mummified in suits and shrouds that lend an aura of sadness rather than horror to proceedings. From 1599 right up to 1920, Palermo’s great and good sought the honour of being dehydrated on ceramic pipes and proudly displayed in the whitewashed vaults, alongside a who’s who of local dignitaries.

The Capuchin catacombs are definitely one of the most haunting tombs in Europe. Different corridors are devoted to different classes of Sicilians: men of authority, children, monks, women, virgins. Although the strata of society people occupied in life is mirrored after death, in practice, the displays of human mortality just serve as a humbling reminder that death is a great leveller. Visiting the catacombs is unsettling, but also moving, and a sense of the futility of trying to hold onto the dead will stay with you long after you step back out into the sunlight.

Aigai contains some of the best preserved ancient tombs in Europe
The tomb of Phillip II at Aigai©Guillén Pérez/CC by-ND 2.0

Great graves at Vergina (Aigai)

The grave of Alexander the Great has never been found, though the Egyptian city of Alexandria is pegged as the most likely location, according to ancient historical records. The grave of Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, however has been located with rather more certainty. In 1977, an excavation of the great tumulus at Aigai near Vergina uncovered two burial vaults that had lain undisturbed since antiquity, containing a treasure trove of funeral goods to rival the wonders found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Archaeologists soon confirmed that tombs in the complex belonged to Phillip II and other members of the family of Alexander, though which family member is buried in which grave is still hotly debated. The funeral mound has been converted into a stunning museum, allowing visitors to descend into the necropolis to see murals of Greek myths on the walls, and admire such treasures as the personal armour of Phillip II, and a hoard of elaborate ceremonial wreaths with foliage made from beaten gold.

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