10 Graveside Traditions at Famous Tombs

Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Chris barker, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Whether it's leaving playing cards or bullets, or drinking a cognac toast, there are a variety of traditional ways to pay tribute at famous tombs. We've rounded up some of the most fascinating.

1. Kisses at Oscar Wilde's Grave

Oscar Wilde is known for a variety of supposed deathbed utterances in keeping with his famous wit, the most well-known of which goes something like: "That wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do." (Wilde might have said it, but not on his deathbed.)

After the famously scandalous poet's death in 1900, his grave became almost as well-known as he was. Wilde was initially buried at the Bagneux Cemetery southwest of Paris, but was later exhumed and transferred to the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise. In 1914, the grave was graced by a gigantic stylized angel carved by sculptor Jacob Epstein. Legend has it the sculpture originally came complete with a set of enormous genitals, which the cemetery's conservator ordered removed, then used as a paperweight in his office.

For at least a decade, visitors showed their admiration for Wilde by covering his grave in lipstick kisses, despite the threat of a fine for damaging a historic monument. In 2011, authorities at Père Lachaise installed a protective glass barrier that prevents such an up-close-and-personal tribute.

2. Metro Tickets at Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir's Grave

The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
generalising, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is also sometimes covered in lipstick kisses, but some devotees leave a more unique offering: Metro tickets. The reasons are somewhat obscure. Some say it relates to a group of French Maoists that Sartre supported who gave away free Metro tickets during a fare hike in the 1960s, while others guess it’s connected to the Boulevard Voltaire riots, in which people died trying to get into a closed metro station. Some fans also leave Metro tickets on Serge Gainsbourg's grave, a tribute to his song "Les Poinçonneur des Lilas” ("The Ticket Puncher of Lilas").

3. Potatoes at Frederick the Great's Grave

Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
threefishsleeping, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Frederick the Great asked for a simple burial on the terrace of his summer palace in Potsdam, next to the burial site of his beloved greyhounds, writing: “I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp or parade.”

But his successor, Frederick William II, buried the former Prussian king in the Potsdam Garrison Church, which he considered a more appropriate resting place. Frederick the Great didn’t rest in peace, however—Hitler dug up his coffin and stashed it in a salt mine, for one thing. After several reburials, it wasn’t until 1991 that Frederick the Great got his wish thanks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today, well-wishers leave potatoes on his grave because he was known for encouraging the crop’s cultivation. The king issued 15 decrees concerning potatoes, trying to overcome cultural barriers to their use.

4. Bullets on Wyatt Earp's Grave

Colma, California, is home to far more dead people than living—it's where most of San Francisco’s deceased were moved when real estate there became too expensive for cemeteries. But Wyatt Earp is Colma's most famous resident, living or dead. His ashes rest at the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery (Earp wasn't Jewish, but his wife was). According to cemetery author and blogger Loren Rhoads, people often leave bullets on the grave (among other items) in memory of the way the West was won.

5. Playing Cards at Harry Houdini's Grave

Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Bess Lovejoy

The great magician’s grave in a forlorn corner of Machpelah Cemetery in Queens (part of the vast Brooklyn-Queens cemetery belt) is associated with several traditions. One of the earliest is the Broken Wand Ceremony, performed by members of the Society of American Magicians when a member dies. The first such ceremony was performed at Houdini's grave in 1926, the year of his death, and repeated on the anniversary of his death each year. (The large crowds attending the ceremony in later years forced a move from Houdini's death date, which is Halloween, to November.) Today, people leave an assortment of offerings on Houdini’s grave, frequently including playing cards—a reference to the magician’s classic tools of the trade.

6. Three XS at Marie Laveau's Tomb

The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or she's said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum. Some also knocked three times on her crypt as a request for her help. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who writes on her grave.

7. Toe Shoes at Sergei Diaghilev's Grave

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the enormously influential dance troupe Ballets Russes, is buried in Italy on the island of San Michele (sometimes called Venice's "Island of the Dead"). According to Rhoads, there's a tradition of placing toe shoes on his grave.

8. "Indecent Rubbing" at Victor Noir's Grave

Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Chupacabra Viranesque, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poor Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise is home to one of the more lascivious cemetery traditions. Noir was a journalist who died in an 1870 duel, and later became a hero to Napoleon III's opponents. But his life story seemingly has little to do with the tradition invented by a tour guide in the 1970s, who said that rubbing the lump in the trousers on Noir's memorial would bring luck in love. Tourists were also told to kiss Noir's lips, and leave flowers in his hat. Decades of tourists have done the same, even though in 2004 the city briefly erected a fence around the statue and a sign prohibiting "indecent rubbing."

9. The Poe Toaster at Edgar Allan Poe's Grave

No round-up of famous graveside traditions would be complete without a mention of the Poe Toaster. Since at least the 1940s, a mysterious figure has stolen into the Westminster Presbyterian Church cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, gone to the site of his original grave, poured out a cognac toast, and left three red roses. The identity of the Poe Toaster has long been a secret, though one 92-year-old came forward in 2007 claiming to be the culprit. The last confirmed visit by the Toaster was in 2009, although the Maryland Historical Society has collaborated with Poe Baltimore and Westminster Burying Grounds to hold a competition to find the next one.

10. Candlelight Processions for Elvis Presley at Graceland

For truly devoted Elvis fans, the highlight of the year is “Death Week”—seven days of events leading up the anniversary of Elvis’s demise (Elvis Presley Enterprises prefers the term “Elvis Week”). After concerts, art exhibits, and charity runs, the week culminates in a candlelit procession that begins at dusk on August 15, the day before the anniversary of Elvis’s death. Tens of thousands of people carrying lighted tapers climb the hill to Graceland, where they each spend a few moments before Elvis’s grave near the reflecting pool. The proceedings go on all night, and it’s said that no other event brings together so many Americans in mourning year after year.

This list was first published in 2015.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER