On Tuesday, Libyan officials laid Muammar al-Qaddafi to
rest in a secret, unmarked desert grave to prevent his burial place from
becoming a shrine for his supporters or a target for his opponents. The
drainage pipes outside Sirte where Qaddafi was captured and the cold storage facility in Misrata where
his corpse was temporarily stored, pictured above, have already become major attractions for
Libyans. Back in May, U.S. officials cited
concerns about creating a shrine as the reason why they committed Osama bin Laden's body to the sea.
This fear of establishing shrines for reviled figures has a long history; the English
ruler Oliver Cromwell, for example, was posthumously
hanged in the 17th century and his head wasn't laid to rest
until 1960. But the concern over Qaddafi's final resting place had us wondering: Do the burial places of controversial
leaders really become shrines? In short, yes. But some of the stories -- from evil spirits to dismembered hands -- are almost too bizarre to be believed. Here's a brief history of contentious burials, from Hussein to Hitler.
The former Iraqi leader, who was found hiding in a
hole near Tikrit in 2003, was hanged
three years later at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad after being convicted of
crimes against humanity. As in the case of Qaddafi's death, gruesome
cell phone footage of Hussein's corpse soon made its way online. Iraqi
wanted to bury Hussein in a secret, unmarked grave. But the country's new
leaders ultimately permitted
Hussein's body to be buried in his hometown of Awja, after local politicians
from nearby Tikrit and the head of Hussein's tribe pleaded with them to do so.
Hundreds of Iraqis attended a funeral for
Hussein, who was buried 24 hours after his execution.
For a time, the burial place did become a shrine of sorts, albeit a relatively unpopular one. In 2007, the New
York Times noted that the reception hall housing Hussein's body, which
was managed by the former leader's family, had been renamed "Martyrs' Hall" and
featured inscriptions hailing Hussein as "the eagle of the Arabs." Saddam-era
Iraqi flags were draped over the former ruler's grave and those of Hussein's
sons, Uday and Qusay, nearby. But the article also noted that the number of visitors --
mainly Sunni Arab supporters -- "drops on some days to twos and threes, and only
rarely reaches double figures, far short of making Awja a pilgrimage site on
the scale of Iraq's religious shrines."
Still, enough pilgrims came, mainly on the anniversaries of Saddam's
birth and death (in 2008, for example, hundreds of Iraqi
on the site), that the Iraqi government decided to ban
organized visits to Martyrs' Hall in 2009. Individuals can still make the
trip, however, and in May the Washington
Post reported that the crowds are growing.
young Iraqi woman snaps a picture of Hussein's grave shortly after the
government's ban on organized visits in 2009.
Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images
In 2006, Chile's former military leader, who had avoided trial for
thousands of cases of murder and torture because of his poor health, suffered a heart attack
while under house arrest and died soon after. The Chilean government denied him a state funeral and a national day of mourning,
but did accord him military honors at his funeral. Then-President Michelle Bachelet, whose father
was tortured under Pinochet, refused to attend
After the funeral, Pinochet's remains were flown by helicopter to a crematorium on the coast
and his ashes were taken to his Los Boldos vacation home. "Relatives had
said they feared a family grave reserved for Pinochet in Santiago would be
vandalized if he were buried," the Washington
Post explained at the time (Chile's La
Nación learned that government officials had rejected the family's initial
request to deposit Pinochet's urn on military grounds). In July, the Guardian
reported that the abandoned Los Boldos estate had become a marijuana
Above, mourners pay respects at Pinochet's wake.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
2006, the onetime communist leader and Serbian nationalist, who was facing trial at The
Hague for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, died in his prison
cell of a heart attack. Milosevic's family accused the Serbian
government of trying to block a burial in Serbia, but Belgrade did ultimately
allow Milosevic to be buried in the yard of a family residence in his
hometown, Pozarevac. Some 15,000 people attended.
burial in Serbia proved controversial, but things took a turn for the bizarre
in 2007 when a dissident named Miroslav Milosevic (no relation) pierced the former
president's grave with a three-foot-long wooden pole as part of an ancient
Balkan ritual to expel evil spirits. Milosevic's grave, like Saddam's, is
typically visited on anniversaries commemorating
his death and the
founding of Milosevic's Socialist Party. This year,
Serbia's infrastructure minister, Milutin Mrkonjic,
caused a stir by joining around
100 others in visiting Milosevic's grave on the fifth anniversary of his
death. Mrkonjic, a member of the Socialist Party, said he'd come as a
friend, not a government official. "It's not
like I'm going to ask my coalition partners if I may visit my friend's grave,"
Above, Milosevic's secretary, Mirjana Dragojevic,
grips the marker by his grave.
The former Ugandan dictator, who fled to Saudi Arabia after lording over one of the
bloodiest reigns in African history in the 1970s, died of kidney failure in
2003 in the Saudi port city, Jeddah. One of Amin's wives told Uganda's Monitor that she had asked Ugandan
President Yoweri Museveni to allow Amin to return once her husband became
gravely ill, only for Museveni to respond that Amin would be held
accountable for his human rights abuses if he came back home. "His body
should be brought back to Uganda and put on display for people to view somebody
who killed so many people," one Ugandan, whose uncle was killed by the dictator's agents,
told the AP
after Amin's death.
The BBC later
noted that the Ugandan government had decided to allow Amin's body to be sent
back to Uganda for burial if his family desired. But Amin's relatives appear to
have chosen instead to bury the former ruler in Jeddah. As far as we can tell, his grave has not become a pilgrimage site.
Above, Ugandans listen to Amin's funeral service on a mobile phone in the Old
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
The brutal Romanian dictator and his wife were executed
by firing squad in 1989, after Ceausescu's government was overthrown. He was, apparently, buried
in the Ghencea military cemetery in Bucharest. But Ceausescu's children questioned whether their parents were really interred in Ghencea -- Romanian authorities had hastily buried
the couple at night under crosses bearing false names, out of fear that the
tombs would be desecrated. Pathologists confirmed
last year that the bodies did indeed belong to the former ruler and his
wife after exhuming their remains and performing DNA tests. "Since 1990," AFP wrote at the time, "dozens of Romanians
nostalgic after [Ceausescu's] regime have been
gathering on his tomb for his birth anniversary and for Christmas, the day of
Above, visitors pay their respects in 2009.
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, he was buried in the Valley of
the Fallen, a massive underground basilica designed to honor those who died for
the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. But now, the Spanish government is
transferring Franco's remains to a cemetery near his former residence of El
Pardo, outside Madrid -- (a move Franco's family opposes) as part of an effort
under the 2007 Law of Historic Memory to remove symbols of Franco's regime.
tomb still serves as a shrine for his nostalgic supporters, who often attend mass there in
large numbers and lay wreaths at his grave.
Above, supporters at his grave give the Fascist salute in 2007.
Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
When the notorious Communist strongman died in 1953, he was initially
buried in Lenin's Mausoleum. But in 1961, Stalin's remains were moved to
a simpler grave near the Kremlin, shown above, as part of a de-Stalinization process.
His grave remains a shrine, however. AFP
reported in March that several hundred (mostly elderly) Russians gathered in
Moscow's Red Square to lay flowers on Stalin's grave in honor of the 58th
anniversary of his death (that number appears to be down from the 3,000 who gathered there
for the 50th anniversary). "Nostalgia for the period when Stalin
ruled with an iron hand is still widespread in Russia," AFP noted.
Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images
tell perhaps the most bizarre story. The Italian Fascist dictator was executed
by firing squad along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, as they tried to
escape to Spain at the end of World War II. According to History Today,
Italian partisans then dumped the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci -- shown
above -- in a plaza in Milan where they were hung upside down, spat upon, and
shot some more. Mussolini's remains were then buried in an unmarked grave near
Milan, only to be stolen in 1946 by an admirer, who left a note on the
grave: "Finally, O Duce, you are with us." When Mussolini's body was finally
recovered four months later in a trunk held by two Franciscan monks near Milan, the Italian
authorities hid the corpse in a villa, a monastery, and a convent before finally
burying the former Italian ruler in his hometown, Predappio.
long wait for interment did not prevent Mussolini's grave from becoming a
shrine for his followers and a key part of the continuing Mussolini cult," History Today wrote back in 1999. And the
debate over Mussolini's remains hasn't yet ended. In 2005, Mussolini's family began
debating whether the body should be moved to a grander location in
Rome. For now, Mussolini is at rest
in his birthplace.
burial story is almost as wild and mysterious as Mussolini's. When Hitler shot
himself in his bunker in 1945 as the Russians seized Berlin, the BBC explains, his staff
doused the Nazi leader's body in petrol, set it ablaze, and buried it in a grave. But there
were reports that Soviet troops secretly reburied the remains in East Germany in 1945,
and that the KGB discovered additional skull fragments near the bunker a year later and dug up Hitler's remains again in 1970 to cremate them and scatter the ashes in a river, lest his grave in East Germany become a Nazi shrine. In
recent years, Russian officials have claimed to possess a jaw
bone and bullet-pierced skull fragment belonging to Hitler -- items they say prove that Hitler committed suicide. But in 2009, American researchers concluded
that the skull fragment belonged to a woman, though Russia disputed the finding.
Why, you ask, would the Russians feel the need to prove the widely accepted story that Hitler commited suicide? To quiet the conspiracy theorists, of course, who have seized on the dearth of evidence surrounding Hitler's death to argue that the German ruler never killed himself and instead fled to South America or other parts of the world (The Boys from Brazil, a 1970s-era novel-turned-film, told the harrowing tale of a plot to clone Hitler). Just this month, a new book -- Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler -- came out arguing that Hitler fled to a Nazi enclave in Argentina.
Argentina’s beloved first lady -- whose life was celebrated
in the Broadway musical “Evita” -- may not qualify as a dictator, but her story
is still worth telling. According to an account
published in 1995, an embalmer masterfully preserved Eva’s body with all
its internal organs when she died of cancer in 1952, and even made a number of
wax and vinyl replicas of her corpse. Eva’s body was initially put on public
display in Buenos Aires, as her husband
Juan prepared a grand monument to house the remains. But when Juan was
overthrown in a military coup in 1955, Argentina’s new leaders, seeking to rid
the country of all things Peron, stashed the body first in an army major’s
attic and then secretly
buried the corpse in Italy under the name Maria Maggi de Magistris.
“Wherever the military hid the body, even in the most secure military
buildings, admirers would find it and repeatedly place flowers and candles
nearby,” the New
York Times observed in 1998.
The tale only gets stranger from there. After another
military coup in 1971, Argentina’s new leader, Gen. Alejandro Lanusse, had
Eva’s body exhumed and sent to Juan, who was living in exile in Madrid at the
time, in return for the former ruler’s support. Juan reportedly
kept the body first in an open casket on his dining room table and then in a shrine
in his attic. (There are creepy stories of Juan’s third wife,
Isabel, combing the corpse's hair and lying on top of, or in, the coffin.) Eva’s
body was finally brought back to Argentina in 1974, when Isabel assumed control of
the country after Juan, who had returned to Argentina the year before to serve a third term as president, died. Eva's remains are now buried in a Buenos Aires tomb, located
beneath two trap doors for security reasons. In the words of the Washington
Post’s Eugene Robinson, Eva's tomb has become a “shrine, an object of pilgrimage,
a place where men and women -- increasingly, old men and old women -- come to
lay flowers and pray.” As for Juan, vandals broke
into his tomb in 1987 and sawed off his hands in a mysterious incident that
has yet to be resolved.
Above, the funeral of Eva Peron.