From Ancient Egypt to modern America, famous politicians, leaders and military heroes have been commemorated with funerals fitting their influence and importance. These amazing funerals went above and beyond to honor the lives of some of history’s greatest figures.
Alexander the Great
A 19th Century illustration of what Alexander the Great’s funeral cart may have looked like as it made its way to Alexandria.
Laying to rest one of the most successful military leaders in history called for one of the most expensive and lavish funerals ever seen. The funeral and burial of Alexander the Great in 323 BC is estimated to have cost over $400m in today’s money and included a gold cart to transport his body.
Alexander III of Macedon was known as ‘the Great’ for good reason; by the age of 30 he had forged one of the largest ancient empires, stretching almost six thousand miles from Greece to India, covering more than 3.5 per cent of the world’s land mass.
Alexander died aged 32, in the ancient city of Babylon, in what’s now modern-day Iraq. The cause of his death is unknown, but historians suggest it was possibly malaria or typhoid fever.
Making a funerary cart impressive enough to carry the world’s most powerful man would take nearly two years. In the meantime, Alexander’s body was preserved by Egyptian embalmers, according to the Greek writer Plutarch’s account.
Once the golden cart was complete, the funeral procession began a long, arduous journey of over 1,300 miles, first travelling from Babylon to Memphis in Egypt and then on to Alexandria.
Alexander’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage. Roman emperor Julius Caesar visited to pay his respects to his personal hero in 45 BC. However, the whereabouts of the tomb are now unknown. Many an archaeologist has searched in vain to find the burial site of the classical world’s greatest leader.
Lincoln’s funeral procession moves through the streets of Columbus, and the ‘Lincoln Special’, which bore the President on his 1,600-mile final journey.
While Alexander the Great made his final journey by horse-drawn wagon, President Lincoln’s funeral procession made use of a pioneering form of transport which would change the face of America: the railway.
When Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865, the entire nation mourned. Businesses closed and flags were flying at half-mast. His body lay in state for three days at the Capitol Rotunda, before embarking on a 1,600-mile cross-country train journey back to his home state of Illinois.
The dedicated funeral train, dubbed ‘the Lincoln Special’, made its way through 180 cities and seven states, making regular stops so that citizens could pay their respects. At each stop the President was taken off the train and placed on a horse-drawn cart so that the funeral procession could pass through the town.
Accompanying Lincoln on his last journey was the body of his beloved son, Willie, who had died of typhoid fever aged just 11. His grave in Washington had been exhumed so that he could be re-buried next to his father.
The train’s last stop was Springfield, Illinois, where father and son were interred at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Sadly, the famous Lincoln Special train was destroyed in a fire in 1911, but a replica engine regularly tours the U.S., much to the delight of history-lovers and train buffs.
The Hongwu Emperor
Stone elephants on the Spirit Path and the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum in Nanjing. Photos by Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch and Kimon Berlin via Wikimedia.
Born into a poor farming family and orphaned at young age, Zhu Yuanzhang could have so easily been laid to rest in a simple unmarked grave. Instead, he rose to become the most powerful warlord in all of China and built for himself a majestic and enormous tomb.
Known as the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu was the founder of the illustrious Ming Dynasty, reigning for 30 years during the 14th Century until his death, aged 69, in 1398.
The death of such an important man warranted a funeral the like of which China had never seen. Legend has it that there were 13 funeral processions, which left from 13 different locations, in order to hide the real burial site from would-be grave robbers.
The emperor’s final resting place is the ornate and enormous Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, located on the Purple Mountain in the Nanjing region. The mausoleum, with its various gates, walls and annexes, took 100,000 workers to build, under the watch of 5,000 guards. The original wall surrounding the mausoleum stretched over 13 miles.
The carefully cultivated landscape around the main mausoleum structure included a road called the Spirit Path, lined with 24 stone animals and eight stone human figures along both sides. Records say that 100,000 pine trees were planted in the grounds, among which lived a thousand deer. Known as ‘longevity deer’, it was forbidden to harm them and each animal wore a silver badge to mark it out as the Hongwu Emperor’s property in the afterlife.
The Arc de Triomphe draped in black mourning flags, with Hugo’s body on an ornate catafalque underneath. The funeral procession carries Hugo by horse-and-carriage to the Panthéon for burial.
Victor Hugo, author of French classics Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was given the largest funeral France had ever seen.
Hugo had witnessed some of the most turbulent moments in French history. He lived through the 1870 siege of Paris, during which starving citizens were forced to eat rats and animals from the Paris zoo to survive. Despite seeing such times of misery and uncertainty, he lived to the age of 83, dying of pneumonia on May 22 1885.
Although he requested a simple pauper’s burial, France could not deny their favorite poet an extravagant funeral. Hugo’s body was displayed under the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris during the night of May 22, before being carried to the Panthéon for burial the following day.
More than two million people attended his funeral procession, with some 40,000 waiting overnight to get a good view. The New York Times reported on the event, calling it “one of the greatest pageants ever seen in France.”
Over three million mourners holding candles in Buenos Aires. Flower shops were forced to close, so many floral tributes were bought to commemorate Evita.
Her death shook an entire nation to the core, but it took nearly 20 years for Eva Perón to be given her final resting place.
The wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, Evita was the First Lady of Argentina for six years until her death in July 1952. Despite receiving pioneering chemotherapy treatment, she died of cervical cancer.
Grief swept the country. Huge crowds assembled in front of the presidential residence, stretching for 20 blocks. Her body lay in state in the Ministry of Labor Building and people queued for hours to see her. Flower shops in Buenos Aires ran out of stock as mourners flocked to lay tributes at makeshift memorials in the streets.
There were extensive plans for a memorial monument for Evita. It would be larger than the Statue of Liberty and her body would be interred in a chamber at the base, open for the public to pay their respects. The plans were never completed, however, due to a military coup which forced Juan Perón to flee the country.
Evita’s embalmed body then went missing for 16 years, until it was revealed in 1971 that she had been taken to Italy and interred in a crypt in Milan. She was exhumed and Juan Perón kept her in his home in Spain until he returned to Argentina in 1973. Eventually, she was permanently interred in La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, in a mausoleum so secure it is said to be able to withstand nuclear fallout, in order to deter those who still want to steal the remains of the famous Evita.
Archaeologist Howard Carter opens King Tutankhamun’s tomb near Luxor and the solid gold coffin of the pharaoh. Photo by Carsten Frenzl via Wikimedia Commons.
Egyptians were meticulous when it came to preparing for the afterlife, believing that the possessions you were buried with would be carried over into the next world. When it came to pharaohs, no expense was spared. Every Egyptian pharaoh was sent to the afterlife surrounded by unimaginable wealth and splendour, but King Tutankhamun had a particularly expensive coffin – made of solid gold.
Although King Tut’s tomb was one of the smaller burials in the Valley of the Kings, where many of this ancient civilization’s royalty lie, it was no less lavishly decorated.
The preserved body of the king was placed within three golden coffins, nesting inside each other like Russian dolls. Although two of these were wood covered in gold sheet, the innermost coffin was solid gold. Nearly 6.5ft long and weighing over 240lbs, this coffin would today be worth well over $1m in scrap value alone. Add in the association with the ancient king and you’re looking at one of the world’s most expensive coffins.
One of the other rare treasures in his tomb was a special iron dagger, carefully wrapped inside the mummy’s bandages with the body. Its blade was made from what the Egyptians called ‘iron from the sky’, obtained from meteorites that had fallen to earth from the heavens. It was an incredibly rare and precious metal, making a weapon truly fit for a king in the afterlife.
Gandhi’s funeral procession and the memorial at the former Birla House in New Delhi, India, where Gandhi was assassinated. Photo by Fowler & Fowler via Wikimedia.
When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, more than two million people turned out for an epic funeral procession that took five hours to travel five miles.
A political activist who led India’s independence movement against the British, Gandhi was beloved by the millions of Indians who shared his beliefs. He was shot and killed by a nationalist who opposed his political ideas.
For the funeral, a weapons carrier was repurposed as a hearse with a platform so that his body could be raised up, allowing the crowds to see him. It took 50 men to pull the hearse with four ropes. Over 6,000 troops and members of the armed forces were in attendance, representing the regiments of the Indian Army.
After the procession, Gandhi’s body was bathed in the Jumna river, a branch of the sacred Ganges, and covered in flowers. He was cremated according to Hindu tradition and his ashes were divided into several urns, to be scattered on water at different significant locations.
Some of the ashes were scattered at the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna river, a sacred place for Hindus. Other urns were scattered on the River Nile in Uganda, on a beach in Mumbai, and at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Los Angeles, California, a place founded to encourage spiritual wisdom and peace among between East and West.