The History and Purpose of Mausoleums

Cemeteries Funeral Industry News November 16, 2022

The History and Purpose of Mausoleums

What’s the purpose behind mausoleums?  In some locations they appear to serve a practical function, such as where a high water table makes ground burial impossible.  But mausoleums appear everywhere, and frequently stand in the midst of thousands of in-ground graveyards. 

Many of these free-standing structures are quite small.  In a place where above-ground burial isn’t required by the features of the land, their presence seems a bit like overkill.  Others are large enough to hold many families, yet enclose one or two individuals and mostly empty space… even, sometimes, no remains at all.

What’s the point?

A Simple Idea Taken to Great Lengths

Typically made of stone, large sepulchral monuments were originally built to hold the remains of a significant figure in a place of honor.  Today the term “mausoleum” is widely employed for pretty much any above-ground burial structure, but way back when, elaborate construction memorialized the entombed.

Modern mausoleums come in lots of variations: they may be built of stone, wood, or other materials; they may contain caskets, urns, or both. Community mausoleums are intended to hold multiple people or may be built for two; there are even public mausoleums which can hold hundreds.  Private or custom mausoleums are intended for family use and are usually built on private property.  Lawn crypts are a type of mausoleum structure built underground.

Ancient Practice

Mausoleums in their present form date back to around 350 BC, when the first mausoleum was built in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey), for a ruler of ancient Anatolia called  Mausolus (from whose name the structure’s is taken). The original building is standing to this day (looking a bit worse for the wear, it’s true, but still one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).

Perhaps the most iconic mausoleum is India’s Taj Majal.  Constructed of white marble for the favorite wife of an emperor who died in 1631, Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”) was the daughter of a prominent family during the Mughal Dynasty; she died at a young age a few years into her new husband’s reign, inspiring the tomb which now bears her name.  Her mausoleum complex is the most famed and recognizable structure in India.  It is recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And who hasn’t heard of the thousands of buried terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, China? The Qinshihuang Mausoleum, completed in 208 BC, is the burial complex of the first Qin Emperor, and isn’t a structure as much as a vast compound.  It includes a grave mound, multiple burial pits, contained structures, and even ritual sites.

These are just two high-profile examples, but there are many more.

Not Just Honor or Remains

Sometimes – especially historically — a mausoleum was built specifically to hold not only an esteemed figure but also their belongings.  Pets and other animals may have been slaughtered to be entombed  with the deceased, along with various material belongings that might include jewelry, money, weapons, clothing, food and other supplies.

It seems a bit extreme in the context of the present day, and perhaps it was even then.  But we have our modern-day variations:  the grand pomps of military funerals; long police escorts honoring the ultimate sacrifice; even elaborate weeks-long rites for fallen figures and leaders.  We still seek to engrave the powerful impact some have made upon the world in a permanent way; but now, we tend to build more of our castles in the air, and feature them with stories rather than stone… but with no less honor.