Humor writer Kathy Benjamin has a new book out called Funerals to Die For. And since comedy and death are the only two loves that have never abandoned us, we asked her if she’d share some of her favorites.
Everyone dies, and most of us choose boring good-bye parties. But these three rulers went all out. If they had to shuffle off their mortal coil then, damn it, people were going to remember.
Alexander the Great
These days the mortuary business is a billion-dollar industry, thanks mostly to the fact that it is really hard to take a few weeks to bargain shop when you have a dead body that needs burying. But the cost of a funeral today is nothing compared to what used to be spent on someone’s sendoff. Now, it’s always hard to compare anything ancient to the modern day, but even with limitations like conversion rates and lack of information, historians agree that the most expensive funeral of all time—by miles—was for Alexander the Great. Considering Hollywood couldn’t even make a terrible movie about the guy for less than $155 million, you know everything in his life (and death) must have been over the top.
Alex was off fighting, expanding his empire, and having affairs with his bodyguards when he kicked the bucket. No one is quite sure how the great general died, but theories include: poisoning, typhoid fever, liver disease, overeating, the flu, malaria, leukemia, and West Nile fever.
What we do know is that Alexander was far from home when he suddenly took ill and died after a long night of partying. This presented the first problem for his subordinates (other than the whole dying thing). Alexander died in present-day Iraq, but his body would need to be buried 1,800 miles away in his home country of Macedonia. And since he was such an important leader, plans would have to be put in place for a grand procession the entire way back; they couldn’t just dump his body in the river and claim he was abducted by aliens, although that would have been much easier for everyone involved. There was no way this was going to be done quickly or on the cheap.
In the end it took two years just to get everything organized. In the meantime, depending on your sources, Alexander’s body was either mummified by Egyptian embalmers or preserved in a vat of honey. Had they combined the two options and added some spice they could have had a honey dry mustard–glazed leader, which could have been delicious—if the Greeks had been cannibals of course. Finally, everything was ready. The historian Diodorus describes in detail how they tarted the body up like a parade float. First Alexander was placed in a gold sarcophagus filled with expensive spices and incense. This was in turn placed in a gold casket. Then the whole kit and caboodle was covered with expensive purple cloth woven with gold thread. In case things weren’t gaudy enough just yet, everything was then placed in a gigantic golden chariot, studded with precious stones, and covered with golden animal carvings and garlands. To make sure no one missed the enormous shining carriage followed by hundreds of people, a large bell was attached and rung constantly so that everyone would know how important the guy inside was. Either that or they would quite rightly assume they were watching the world’s first gay pride parade.
Of course, even with two years of preparation, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Despite an expensive tomb being built for him in Macedonia, Alexander’s remains never made it home. One of his generals hijacked the procession and took it to Egypt. There he had another huge tomb built for his late ruler that included an ornate glass sarcophagus so that people could come to view the honey glazed body for the next 500 years or so.
In the end, Alexander’s entire funeral is estimated to have cost $600 million in today’s money. That means that, as a tourist attraction, the tomb would have needed to take in almost $1 million a year just to break even on the funeral costs more than half a millennium later. And for a while it might have seemed like a good investment, but as early as AD 400, writers were commenting on the fact that no one knew where one of the greatest rulers in history was buried. Money well spent.
They say you can’t take it with you, but “they” were obviously never supreme rulers of millions of people. Now, the best thing about being an absolute ruler is that you don’t just get to take material possessions with you when you die; you also get to force a whole bunch of people to come with you as well. Some great rulers took as many as a few hundred servants with them to the afterlife, but Genghis Khan took this practice to a completely new level when he died.
Genghis Khan had risen from a difficult and impoverished childhood to unite hundreds of tribes and slaughter his way across Asia, creating the greatest empire the world had ever seen in the process. Then when he was sixty-five he fell off his horse and died; a decidedly lame ending for such a badass. While his death was sudden, he had prepared for it in advance. As well as having already divided his empire among his sons, Genghis had picked out a spot to be buried. However, like many great generals he died on campaign far away from his preferred burial site. This wasn’t a problem; according to Marco Polo, the Mongols were used to carrying their deceased leaders’ bodies for up to a hundred days in order to bury them. But Genghis Khan had asked that his gravesite be kept a complete secret, so the procession was going to have to take some drastic measures. To start, they didn’t tell anyone that Genghis had actually kicked the bucket before they started the long trek to the place he had picked out. Along the way the soldiers escorting the body made sure to kill anyone who happened along the procession. To put that in perspective, many historians believe Khan died in Egypt, meaning the procession had to walk 4,000 miles to Mongolia in order to get to the burial site. But if you were some random Egyptian peasant who saw the procession as it passed your farm, you were pretty much dead. They were not taking any chances.
Once they got to the burial site, slaves built an appropriate tomb. We have no idea what it looked like, although historians think a recently discovered fresco may depict the Khan’s funeral. Showing an ornate tomb and coffin, it indicates that many hundreds of slaves would have been needed to complete it. However, they weren’t given much time to admire their craftsmanship. Once they finished the undoubtedly detailed and ornate work fit for such a great ruler, the soldiers thanked them by killing them all. Then they buried their ruler, along with the 2,000 additional recently slaughtered servants he might need in the afterlife. Right after the funeral the soldiers killed everyone who had watched the burial, be they monks, government ministers, or random passersby. And, just to be absolutely sure that no Mongolian Dr. Doolittle would try to find out where the grave was, all the animals in the area were killed as well, including at least forty horses.
Of course, the 800 soldiers doing all this killing in the name of Genghis’s privacy also knew where the grave was located. So after they took care of everyone and everything else they were also killed, although who exactly did these final killings isn’t recorded. While this may have been quite literally overkill, Genghis got what he wanted. Almost immediately people had no idea where the Mongols’ greatest ruler was buried, and to this day archeologists spend their careers searching for it. While it might seem like a long shot, they might want to be careful of any murder obsessed soldier-ghosts, who would probably manage to find a way to keep that place hidden even if it means scaring a few thousand more people to death.
Qin Shi Huang
In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of a united China at the tender age of thirteen. While most prepubescent boys today would be thinking about the girl they have a crush on and how to convince their parents to buy them the latest video game system, Qin knew what was really important in life: death. Or more importantly, how he would be remembered after death. That’s why almost immediately upon taking the throne he ordered that construction begin on his seriously gargantuan tomb, one that inspires awe to this day.
Eventually Qin would grow from a boy to a king worthy of such a grand tomb. He picked the spot for his burial because the land in the area was full of gold and jade mines, items he deemed worthy of his awesomeness. Despite having 700,000 men work on his tomb for the rest of his life, as Qin got older he started freaking out about the prospect of actually inhabiting it one day and tried to force the greatest minds in his kingdom to find the secret to the elixir of life. While it would have been impressive if they had actually succeeded, it would have been a shame for one of the greatest tombs in history to go to waste. And in fact, the tomb didn’t stay empty for long; Qin was only forty-nine when he was entombed in his great mausoleum.
So just what sort of place was he going to spend the rest of eternity in? First of all, it was more than 12,000 square feet. Dozens of rooms were set aside to hold some of the greatest treasures the world had ever seen. A garden was constructed, with the leaves of trees made from solid jade. The dome of the tomb was studded with pearls inlaid in precious blue stones to look like stars in the night sky. A “river” was made of mercury, which means that if anyone in the tomb wasn’t already dead, they would be almost immediately. But the most famous part of Qin’s tomb was the 8,000 terracotta soldiers crafted to stand guard outside. Every single figure is unique, with its own hairstyle and facial expression. Each soldier has a rank, and some have horses.
While much of the tomb has been excavated since its rediscovery in the 1970s, archeologists haven’t even tried to get near the burial chamber, mostly because they assume whatever they find in there will be so valuable it will be almost impossible to guard. With riches like that it is no wonder Qin was so afraid to leave them behind. What’s Chinese for “you can’t take it with you”?
Learn more about bizarre, creepy, and outlandish funeral practices in Kathy’s new book, Funerals to Die For.