Do Graves of Dictators Really Become Shrines?

A tour of contentious burials from Qaddafi to Hitler.

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.

Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images


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 officials initially 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 schoolchildren descended 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.

Above, a 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 the ceremony.

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 plantation.

Above, mourners pay respects at Pinochet’s wake.

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images


In 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. 

Milosevic’s 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,” he explained.

Above, Milosevic’s secretary, Mirjana Dragojevic, grips the marker by his grave.

AFP/Getty Images


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 Kampala Mosque.

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 his execution.”

Above, visitors pay their respects in 2009.

Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images


When 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 considering 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.

Franco’s 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


Mussolini’s remains 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.

“The 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.

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Hitler’s 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.

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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.

AFP/Getty Images

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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