Strange Burial Requests and Unusual Grave Goods

Funeral Industry News May 5, 2020
Cartoon with special burial requests
Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist based in Los Angeles. Her interests include modern grief rituals, innovative disposition methods, and navigating death and mourning in an increasingly secular society.

Strange Burial Requests and Unusual Grave Goods

They say you can’t take it with you — but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. For as long as we’ve been conducting burials, humans have included various meaningful objects in their graves. From personal items to religious symbols and tools for the afterlife, grave goods take many forms and serve many purposes, some stranger than others. We’ve compiled some of the strangest burial requests here.

Afterlife road trip

Cultures with a strong belief in a physical afterlife filled burial chambers with all the supplies essential for a smooth journey to the other side. This included everyday items like food, utensils, clothing, and money. The custom of placing coins over the eyelids of the dead comes from the ancient Greeks, who believed the money would pay for the deceased’s ferry trip across the river Styx.

Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with all the things they’d need for the journey, including mummified cats and other animals to serve as companions on the other side. The burial chamber of a Chinese king from the Han Dynasty included, among other everyday needs and luxuries, a stone toilet. Apparently not even bodily functions stop in the afterlife.

High-status Vikings received elaborate funerals, too. The dead or their cremated remains and their grave goods were loaded onto a ship built for this purpose. Contrary to popular belief, the burial ships were not set adrift, nor ceremoniously set on fire with a single flaming arrow. Rather, the ships were buried and covered with stones to indicate a gravesite.

In the Victorian era, people frequently added contraptions featuring bells and other noise-making devices to a grave. This would allow anyone who had been prematurely buried to alert the outside world. Today, some people opt to take their mobile devices into the grave. Taking it one step further, a New York woman buried her husband with his cell phone — and continued to pay the bill so people could leave him voicemail messages.

Mementos of eccentric lives 

In modern times, celebrities still hope to cement their legacies and ease their entry into the afterlife of their choice with unique burial requests. 

Actor Bela Lugosi, who never escaped the shadow of his most famous role, was buried in a replica of his Dracula cape. Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, requested a list of items replete with personal symbolism: a flask of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and a roll of dimes for emergency phone calls from the other side.

Famously eccentric pop artist Andy Warhol loved perfume so much he would snoop through friends’ cabinets to get a whiff. His request was that someone place a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume in his grave. 

One of Hollywood’s great romances, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall met on the set of To Have and Have Not, the movie that birthed the iconic “you know how to whistle, don’t you?” line. When Bogart died of cancer just a decade into their marriage, Bacall placed a gold-plated whistle engraved with the famous line into Bogart’s urn.

The comforts of home

It’s not just the rich and famous who want to take meaningful personal items with them to the grave. Funeral directors see all kinds of funeral requests from ordinary folks. Somewhat common requests include a favorite fishing pole or baseball glove, sentimental letters, even favorite snacks. Though we fortunately no longer sacrifice living pets when their owners die, some still ask to be buried with the ashes of their beloved animal companions. 

Some people take after the ancients, making sure they’ll spend eternity in peak comfort. An Australian funeral director recalls burying a client in their underwear, wrapped in their favorite blanket, alongside their remote control. What better way to spend the afterlife than in your coziest hangout?

Literally “outside the box” burial requests

In most cases, these items rest alongside their owner’s urn in a columbarium niche. Sometimes, though, the item itself doesn’t quite fit in a standard grave.

Sandra West, a Texas socialite who died in 1977, made a very specific request for her burial: she was interred wearing a lace nightgown, seated at the wheel of her Ferrari, “with the seat slanted comfortably.” The burial required a crane and an extra-large gravesite to accommodate the vehicle.

Billy Standley, a lifelong Harley Davidson enthusiast, also couldn’t bear to part from his beloved ride. To honor his request to literally go to his grave astride his motorcycle, Standley’s sons built a custom Plexiglass coffin to encase their father and his Harley. The funeral procession drew a crowd as Billy took his last ride with an entourage of the other bikers.

Massachusetts resident Reuben John Smith hated the thought of underground burial. He built himself a roomy above-ground mausoleum. He also loved the comfort of his easy chair. Before he died, he picked out a leather recliner. His deceased body now sits in it. His favorite checkerboard is on his lap and the tomb key is in his jacket pocket.

Casket makers have noticed this idea of adding keepsakes to caskets. Some now design caskets with special drawers to allow for these requests. Have you thought about what you want to take with you to the grave?