A broken column is an example of the symbolism seen in churchyards up and down the country. The column signifies that the person interred had their life cut short. Other symbols that can be seen in any churchyard include a book, which symbolises that the person had strong faith. A broken chain symbolises a loss in a family, apples refer to sin, a lily indicates particular beauty and a horn of plenty shows that the person buried had a fruitful life. Flags can often be seen on veterans' graves.
Graves tend to face east, so that the feet are towards the rising sun - in the Jewish tradition this is a sign of hope. In the Christian tradition this is so that when Jesus returns to Jerusalem, the faithful will rise up from their graves facing towards Him (though this seems to be a rationalisation for a pre-Christian tradition). Graveyards tend to be on the south side of the church, which gets more sunlight. The north side was traditionally reserved for suicides, criminals and unbaptised infants.
The lichen on gravestones is useful for determining the health of the environment. Many species of lichen are vulnerable to environmental disturbance, so scientists use them for assessing the effects of pollution – they absorb heavy metals into their tissue, collecting elements like lead and cadmium. Grave lichens are particularly useful because they are not covered in chemical spray or artificial fertiliser. Also, headstones carry a vital bit of information that rocks and trees don’t – a date. Lichens on flat tombstones tend to grow outwards in a regular circle, so the diameter of the circle is proportional to its age. The study of lichens to date objects is called 'lichenometrics'.
The first 20th-century national tombs to Unknown Soldiers were instituted in Britain and France simultaneously in 1920. The unmarked remains of four British soldiers were exhumed, one from each of the four great battlefields of Belgium and France. Draped in Union flags, the bodies were set before Brigadier-General L. J. Wyatt. He pointed at one of them. That unknown body became the first Unknown Soldier and was honoured with a State funeral in Westminster Abbey with full military honours, entombed with a medieval crusader’s sword from the royal collection, in the presence of a guard made up of 100 Victoria Cross holders.
The guests of honour were a hundred women, each of whom had lost her husband and all her sons in the war. Many other countries have since emulated this practice and the selection process that goes with it.
The tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War is empty. For many years the body of 1st Lt Michael Joseph Blassie (1948-1972) was designated the Unknown service member from the Vietnam War. Blassie's family, however, were aware that evidence from the crash site suggested the body might be his. Having secured permission to test the theory, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were exhumed on May 14, 1998.
Following DNA tests, the USA's Defense Department announced that the Vietnam Unknown had been identified and Blassie's body was returned to his family. The tomb is now empty as a result. The situation of having 'unknown soldiers' is unlikely to arise again as all US military recruits now have a DNA sample taken.
Pocahontas was the first known American to be buried on British soil.
At his own request, the composer Anton Bruckner is buried underneath the organ in St Florian's church in Linz, Austria.
If the thought of being cremated or buried bores you, here are a couple of ways to spice up your afterlife:
Turn yourself into a diamond: a company called Lifegem will take your remains after cremation (or a lock of your hair if you prefer) and extract the carbon from it. They heat this to a very high temperature and convert it into a diamond.
Recycle yourself: a Swedish company called Promessa will freeze your corpse down to -18C, then lower you in your coffin into a vat of liquid nitrogen. You will become very brittle, so that when they vibrate you and your coffin, everything collapses into dust. The mercury and other metals from your body are then extracted using magnets, and sent to be recycled – so you might end up as part of a Volkswagen Beetle. This leaves around 25-30 kilos of powder, which is put into a coffin made of maize starch or potato starch. The starch coffin is buried shallowly, and will turn into compost in 6-12 months.
James Doohan, who played Scotty in Star Trek, had some of his ashes sent into space.
Ed Headrick, inventor of the modern Frisbee, had his ashes moulded into commemorative Frisbees.
Fredric J. Baur, the man who designed the Pringles packaging system, had his ashes buried in a Pringles can.
Row upon row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element.
In Ghana, many people are buried in coffins shaped into things they love - from surf boards, guitars and giraffes to coke cans and cigarettes. This isn't a gimmick; in Ghana it’s common to see shops selling these big, unusually-shaped coffins.
The practice is particularly prevalent in the Teshi suburb of Accra, but is a 'tradition' that dates back only around 50 years, supposedly to a carpenter called Ata Owoo who would make magnificent chairs to transport the village chief. One of his clients commissioned a cocoa pod-shaped chair, but died before it was finished and so it became his coffin. A couple of years later he built a coffin shaped like an aeroplane for a woman who’d never been in one, and a tradition was born. Popular designs include Bibles, mobile phones and elephants; they cost around $400, which could be a year's salary for many Ghanaians.
Alternative coffins are available in the UK; you can buy one with the logo of your favourite football team, or one inscribed with poetry. Coffin painter Carol Aston has been long-listed for the Turner prize three .
The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Up until 1822, suicides were often buried at crossroads at midnight with stakes in their hearts, to stop them rising again and wandering the earth.
The amputated leg of General Santa Anna, president of Mexico, was buried with full military honors in 1841.
Frank Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of Camel cigarettes.
Not only is it legal to bury a body on private property, you don't even need planning permission.