10 Graveside Traditions at Famous Tombs
Whether it's leaving playing cards or bullets, or drinking a cognac toast, there are a variety of traditional ways to pay tribute at famous tombs. We've rounded up some of the most fascinating.
1. Kisses at Oscar Wilde's Grave
Oscar Wilde is known for a variety of supposed deathbed utterances in keeping with his famous wit, the most well-known of which goes something like: "That wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do." (Wilde might have said it, but not on his deathbed.)
After the famously scandalous poet's death in 1900, his grave became almost as well-known as he was. Wilde was initially buried at the Bagneux Cemetery southwest of Paris, but was later exhumed and transferred to the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise. In 1914, the grave was graced by a gigantic stylized angel carved by sculptor Jacob Epstein. Legend has it the sculpture originally came complete with a set of enormous genitals, which the cemetery's conservator ordered removed, then used as a paperweight in his office.
For at least a decade, visitors showed their admiration for Wilde by covering his grave in lipstick kisses, despite the threat of a fine for damaging a historic monument. In 2011, authorities at Père Lachaise installed a protective glass barrier that prevents such an up-close-and-personal tribute.
2. Metro Tickets at Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir's Grave
The grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is also sometimes covered in lipstick kisses, but some devotees leave a more unique offering: Metro tickets. The reasons are somewhat obscure. Some say it relates to a group of French Maoists that Sartre supported who gave away free Metro tickets during a fare hike in the 1960s, while others guess it’s connected to the Boulevard Voltaire riots, in which people died trying to get into a closed metro station. Some fans also leave Metro tickets on Serge Gainsbourg's grave, a tribute to his song "Les Poinçonneur des Lilas” ("The Ticket Puncher of Lilas").
3. Potatoes at Frederick the Great's Grave
Frederick the Great asked for a simple burial on the terrace of his summer palace in Potsdam, next to the burial site of his beloved greyhounds, writing: “I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp or parade.”
But his successor, Frederick William II, buried the former Prussian king in the Potsdam Garrison Church, which he considered a more appropriate resting place. Frederick the Great didn’t rest in peace, however—Hitler dug up his coffin and stashed it in a salt mine, for one thing. After several reburials, it wasn’t until 1991 that Frederick the Great got his wish thanks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today, well-wishers leave potatoes on his grave because he was known for encouraging the crop’s cultivation. The king issued 15 decrees concerning potatoes, trying to overcome cultural barriers to their use.
4. Bullets on Wyatt Earp's Grave
Colma, California, is home to far more dead people than living—it's where most of San Francisco’s deceased were moved when real estate there became too expensive for cemeteries. But Wyatt Earp is Colma's most famous resident, living or dead. His ashes rest at the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery (Earp wasn't Jewish, but his wife was). According to cemetery author and blogger Loren Rhoads, people often leave bullets on the grave (among other items) in memory of the way the West was won.
5. Playing Cards at Harry Houdini's Grave
The great magician’s grave in a forlorn corner of Machpelah Cemetery in Queens (part of the vast Brooklyn-Queens cemetery belt) is associated with several traditions. One of the earliest is the Broken Wand Ceremony, performed by members of the Society of American Magicians when a member dies. The first such ceremony was performed at Houdini's grave in 1926, the year of his death, and repeated on the anniversary of his death each year. (The large crowds attending the ceremony in later years forced a move from Houdini's death date, which is Halloween, to November.) Today, people leave an assortment of offerings on Houdini’s grave, frequently including playing cards—a reference to the magician’s classic tools of the trade.
6. Three XS at Marie Laveau's Tomb
Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or she's said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum. Some also knocked three times on her crypt as a request for her help. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who writes on her grave.
7. Toe Shoes at Sergei Diaghilev's Grave
Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the enormously influential dance troupe Ballets Russes, is buried in Italy on the island of San Michele (sometimes called Venice's "Island of the Dead"). According to Rhoads, there's a tradition of placing toe shoes on his grave.
8. "Indecent Rubbing" at Victor Noir's Grave
Poor Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise is home to one of the more lascivious cemetery traditions. Noir was a journalist who died in an 1870 duel, and later became a hero to Napoleon III's opponents. But his life story seemingly has little to do with the tradition invented by a tour guide in the 1970s, who said that rubbing the lump in the trousers on Noir's memorial would bring luck in love. Tourists were also told to kiss Noir's lips, and leave flowers in his hat. Decades of tourists have done the same, even though in 2004 the city briefly erected a fence around the statue and a sign prohibiting "indecent rubbing."
9. The Poe Toaster at Edgar Allan Poe's Grave
No round-up of famous graveside traditions would be complete without a mention of the Poe Toaster. Since at least the 1940s, a mysterious figure has stolen into the Westminster Presbyterian Church cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, gone to the site of his original grave, poured out a cognac toast, and left three red roses. The identity of the Poe Toaster has long been a secret, though one 92-year-old came forward in 2007 claiming to be the culprit. The last confirmed visit by the Toaster was in 2009, although the Maryland Historical Society has collaborated with Poe Baltimore and Westminster Burying Grounds to hold a competition to find the next one.
10. Candlelight Processions for Elvis Presley at Graceland
For truly devoted Elvis fans, the highlight of the year is “Death Week”—seven days of events leading up the anniversary of Elvis’s demise (Elvis Presley Enterprises prefers the term “Elvis Week”). After concerts, art exhibits, and charity runs, the week culminates in a candlelit procession that begins at dusk on August 15, the day before the anniversary of Elvis’s death. Tens of thousands of people carrying lighted tapers climb the hill to Graceland, where they each spend a few moments before Elvis’s grave near the reflecting pool. The proceedings go on all night, and it’s said that no other event brings together so many Americans in mourning year after year.
This list was first published in 2015.