10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats

D.G. Hewitt - May 28, 2018

The graves of famous figures from history often serve as places of pilgrimage. Millions of tourists a year flock to pay their respects to Oscar Wilde in Paris, for example, or visit the Arlington National Cemetery simply to stand silently by JFK’s final resting place for a while. Indeed, even hundreds of years after their deaths, some famous figures still get flowers on their graves. But what about those historical figures whose ultimate whereabouts is unknown? In some cases, there may be contested graves, places where their admirers can visit in the hope that their idol is indeed the person lying beneath their feet. Or sometimes there’s not even a possible resting site, just a great, unsolved mystery.

The discovery of King Richard III of England under a car park in the city of Leicester showed that, sometimes bodies do get found, even hundreds of years after they went missing. That’s why amateur archaeologists as well as professional academics are still following the clues and trying to find the final resting places of numerous historical figures. At the same time, however, some cases appear hopeless. However, much we might hope to solve these historical puzzles, sometimes people just don’t want to be found.

And so, here are just 10 examples of historical figures whose final resting place remains either unknown or contested:

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Mozart was buried in a commoner’s grave, the location of which is disputed. Wikipedia.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In the music world, the word ‘genius’ is bandied about perhaps a bit too easily. But there can no disputing that, when it comes to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it’s a completely accurate term. Born in the Austrian city of Salzburg in 1756, he was famously composing tunes and performing to the upper echelons of society from an early age. During the 35 years of his short life, Mozart composed operas, symphonies and concertos, gaining celebrity status and earning a small fortune. Surely such a true genius would be buried in an elaborate grave? Think again.

In September of 1791, Mozart was in Prague to celebrate the premier of one of his lesser-known operas. He fell ill and his condition swiftly deteriorated. Though he was mentally able to carry on composing – he even tried to finish his own Requiem while on his death bed in Vienna – his body gave up the fight. He died on 5 December 1791. What happened next is something of a mystery.

Some accounts mistakenly say that Mozart was buried in a ‘common grave’. While this is half-true, It’s wrong to assume that his final resting place was a pauper’s grave. Rather, he was buried in St Marx Cemetery, just outside the centre of Vienna, in what was then known as a grave for common people – that is, someone who was not a member of the aristocracy. Notably, while aristocrats were indeed left to rest in peace, the bodies of people from the lower classes were not. In fact, they were liable to be dug up and moved after ten years. Even if they were left in place, they were left unmarked.

Shortly after his death, the people of Vienna realised they might have been a little too hasty and disrespectful to their most famous son. A group of gentlemen decided to locate Mozart’s grave and erect a fitting memorial. Using old documents, they found the spot they believed to be the composer’s final resting place and then got Hanns Gasser to design an elaborate memorial stone. It’s to this spot that tourists come to pay their respects today. The problem is, however, that nobody can say for certain that Mozart himself is lying in that spot. Sure, he’s in the St. Marx Cemetery. But whereabouts exactly? Like the man and his music himself, that continues to be the source of much fascination and debate.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Lorca was driven out of his native Granada and buried in an unknown location. The Daily Telegraph.

Federico Garcia Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca is widely-regarded as Spain’s greatest-ever poet and, along with the likes of El Cid and Cervantes, among one of its finest literary sons. However, while many of his contemporaries, among them Pablo Picasso, lived to a ripe old age and were finally buried with the respect and reverence their genius merited, Lorca had no such luck. Instead, he fell victim to hatred. Just one of many people killed during Spain’s bloody civil war, Lorca’s final resting place is still not known for sure – and efforts to find answers to the 80-year-old riddle continue to cause controversy to this day.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lorca spent much time in Madrid and New York, penning some of his most famous poems and making a name for himself on the global literary scene. But when civil war erupted in Spain in the summer of 1936, he returned to his native Granada, in the south of the country. The city quickly fell to rebel forces and, under their bloodthirsty and ruthless general, they quickly set about assassinating or imprisoning their opponents. As a man of letters with close ties to the liberal Republic and, moreover, as a homosexual, Lorca was one of the first names written on the rebels’ blacklist.

Lorca’s belief that his friends and connections – one of his friends had links with the Spanish political right – would protect him was sadly unfounded. One day in August, Lorca, along with two known local anarchists, were rounded up by rebel thugs and driven out towards a village on the outskirts of Granada. There, on a hillside overlooking the city he so loved, Lorca was shot. Both he and his two fellow victims were thrown in a trench and buried. No record of the spot was made, and no sign was erected.

Ever since then, historians both professional and amateur have been working tirelessly to find Lorca and give him a proper burial. Every few years, an academic or amateur historian announces they have found new evidence that will lead us to the poet’s resting place. To date, however, when bones have been found, they have not been Lorca’s. Just to make the task more difficult, there are some people in Spain, and in Granada in particular, who believe the past should remain in the past. Attempts to find Lorca’s body have been thwarted, often through political obstructions. For now, then, the poet’s many fans have no exact spots to pay their respects to the greatest voice of 20th century Spain.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
This grave in France only contained the ‘supposed’ remains of Leonardo. Atlas Obscura.

Leonardo da Vinci

The chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Chateau d’Amboise in France certainly looks like the kind of place the original Renaissance Man should be laid to rest. Though it may be small, the chapel is elaborate, with complex architectural designs and motifs and stunning carvings stand above large, imposing doors. Indeed, in a quiet corner of the chapel lies a fenced-off tomb area, with the name ‘Leonard Da Vinci’ inscribed into it. Look more closely, however, and a sign says on the wall that the remains lying here are only “presumed” to be those of the great man himself. This is one Da Vinci riddle nobody has truly cracked yet.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in Vinci, in what was then the Republic of Florence, in 1452. Over the decades that followed, he established himself as one of the finest minds not just of his time, but of any time in human history. As well as painting, Leonardo also excelled as a sculptor and architect. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a true math genius, an engineer and dabbled in writing history, and was responsible for pioneering studies of human anatomy. Not for nothing is he seen as the ultimate polymath and a man way ahead of his time.

Unlike many historical figures whose final resting places continue to be the source of speculation, Leonardo did not slide into poverty during his final years. Instead, he lived a life of luxury in his old age. Under the patronage of Pope Leo X, he stayed at the Vatican before he moved to France. Here, he stayed at Clos Luce, a huge manor house belonging to King Francis I. It was here that he died, on 2 May 1519, at the age of 67. The accounts of the time say that the king himself embraced Leonardo as he passed away.

Shortly after his death, Leonardo’s body was interned in the chapel of Saint Florentin, a private chapel in the grounds of Chateau d’Amboise in France’s picturesque Loire Valley. And here he might have stayed had it not been for the French Revolution of 1789. With the country in turmoil, the chateau was attacked and much of it, chapel included, almost completely destroyed. At that point, the great man’s remains were moved. But to where exactly? That’s the enduring mystery.

Many experts do believe that he Leonardo’s bones were indeed moved just a short distance and put in another chapel in the same chateau. Not everyone is so sure, however. The bones found by amateur archaeologists in 1863 were undoubtedly found in a stone coffin close to an inscription reading ‘LEO DUS VINC’. It is these that are buried under the ‘presumed’ resting place now. However, the 19th century sleuths partly based their conclusion on the size of the skull. Apparently, it was larger than average, proof, they believed that it belonged to a genius. Since then, of course, science has shown no correlation between head size and IQ, one more reason to question the perceived wisdom.

As it is, while fans of Leonardo do have a place to go and pay their respects, nobody has produced concrete proof that the corner of the chapel is the appropriate site. Perhaps we will one day have an answer. Scientists are currently trying to get DNA samples from the bones and compared them to Leonardo’s distant living relatives. The results could be ready as soon as 2019. Could the mystery of the resting place of the world’s greatest-ever mind soon be about to be solved?

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Davy Crockett died at the Alamo – but was he buried there? Wikipedia.

Davy Crockett

Legendary American folk hero David “Davy” Crockett was the subject of much myth-making during his own lifetime. And the myths and legends associated with the frontiersman, soldier and politician only continued to grow and even become more elaborate in the years and decades following his death. Indeed, even his death continues to be the subject of some speculation. This includes his final resting place. Americans have never had, and likely never will have, a spot where they can pay their respects at the exact spot where one of their great heroes lies.

According to some, the San Fernando Cathedral is the best place to start. Here, at the back of the building, which opened its doors to the faithful in 1728, lies a tomb. And next to the tomb is a stone. One the stone it states that the remains of Travis, Bowie and Crockett, as well as other ‘heroes of the Alamo’ are interred there. Quite how accurate this claim is, however, remains the source of much debate. While some believe the statement, others maintain that Crockett’s remains never left the exact place where he achieved immortality: the Alamo itself.

The story starts in 1888. It was then that Colonel Juan Seguin – who had visited the Alamo a month after the famous battle – wrote a letter claiming to have taken the remains of the outpost’s heroic defenders and buried them beneath the alter of San Fernando Cathedral. To begin with, most people simply dismissed his claims. But then, some 50 years later, in 1938, things changed. Workmen digging in the cathedral found charred human remains. Could they really belong to Crockett and his fellow Alamo defenders? The cathedral certainly believed so, hence the plaque. They also rushed out a history book to ‘prove’ this was the case.

Even this wasn’t enough for most historians, however. According to almost all accounts, Santa Ana had all of the bodies of those killed at the Alamo, Crockett included, cremated. So, it’s far more likely that he was burned alongside Mexican soldiers and his comrades in arms and then the ashes scattered close to the site of the battle. Nevertheless, some romantics and amateur historians still believe that Crockett was given a proper Christian burial and now rests under a cathedral alter, a spot fitting for a true American hero.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Shakespeare is buried in his native Stratford, though his head might be missing. BBC.

William Shakespeare

Lovers of the Bard definitely do have a place to pay their respects to the great man. In fact, there’s no dispute over exactly where William Shakespeare is buried. His body lies in a small, historic church, in his hometown. But his head? That’s a different matter altogether. For, while the great writer’s body is buried in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, his head isn’t attached to it. And nobody knows quite where it is.

While Shakespeare famously left his native Stratford to find fame and fortune in London, as was the custom of the time, he returned to his home town in later life. Certainly, he didn’t retire in the proper sense of the word. From 1608 onwards, he would regularly go into London to stage one of his plays or for social reasons. Indeed, he was still a relatively young man when he moved back to the Midlands, and he was only 52 – and, in his own words, “In perfect health” – when he died in April of 1616.

There was no question of where Shakespeare was to be buried. Though his theater was in London, he was a son of Stratford. So, two days after his passing, he was buried in the Holy Trinity, right in the center of the historic town. Notably, a huge stone slab was placed above his resting place. On it was inscribed a curse, leveled at anyone who dare disturb his bones. Ever since then, any cleaning or restorations carried out to the church have been careful to ensure that the Bard’s warning from beyond the grave is heeded. Even a 2016 investigation by researchers from Staffordshire University took extra care. It was this team, carrying out the first-ever scan of the grave, who uncovered the grisly secret: someone, at some point, had stolen Shakespeare’s head.

The discovery served to confirm legends printed back in 1879. Back then, it was alleged that graverobbers had broken into the shallow tomb and taken the head. No reason was given for the macabre act. Some historians believe that the skull could even have been taken before the initial burial, perhaps by a grieving friend or relative. After all, taking body parts for mementos was not unheard of at this time. Or could it be true that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic and that a member of the faith took his skull to bury it according to their traditions?

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death once again brought the mystery to the fore. Scientists and researchers are no closer to finding out what happened to the head. And some are even starting to question whether it’s missing. Could scans simply have missed it? Both professional and amateur sleuths are still busy trying to solve the puzzle. But, for many people in Stratford, the Bard should be left to rest in peace once and for all – head or no head.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Vlad the Impaler’s resting place continues to be the subject of historic intrigue. Wikipedia.

Vlad the Impaler

As one of the most feared rulers in history, Vlad the Impaler sent many men – and women and children – to their graves. But his own grave? Nobody knows where this might be. In fact, over the centuries, countless theories have been put forward as to where Vlad III might be lying. Often, historians can’t even agree on the right country. And, while this may be frustrating for historians, it’s somehow fitting that a man who spawned many myths remains such a mystery many years after his death.

Vlad was born in 1428 to royalty in Wallachia, modern-day Romania. A prince, he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, vowing to protect Christianity from the Ottoman Turks. And it was in his near-constant battles with the Ottoman Empire that Vlad earned his reputation and his infamous nickname. According to some accounts, when he took prisoners, he liked to impale them on spikes. Not only did this ensure they died a slow, painful death, but it was also his way of deterring his enemies from following him.

Relatively little is known of Vlad’s demise. Certainly, he was lost in battle in the year 1476, or perhaps early 1477. According to some contemporary sources, his body was cut to pieces, with different parts being sent to his various enemies. This means that his resting place is not known – and, if stories of him being chopped up are true, then it might never be known. Popular tradition holds that Vlad was buried in the Monastery of Snagov. The monastery is located on an island in the middle of Snagov Lake in Transylvania, Romania. The story goes that the monks living here found his headless body in nearby forests and, since he and his father had helped them financially, the monks took Vlad to be given a proper burial.

But not everyone is so sure. Some historians have it that, rather than being killed in battle, Vlad was captured by the Ottoman. Some say his daughter paid a ransom and he ended up in Naples, where he lies to this day. Here, in the Italian city, the graveyard of Santa Maria la Nova, is a tomb with a dragon etched on it – the symbol of the Prince of Wallachia’s house. Could this really be the place? Maybe. The only problem is, if anyone ever thinks they’ve found the spot, they might have to open the tomb of Vlad the Impaler to prove it – and that sounds like quite a scary prospect indeed.


10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Genghis Khan reputedly had anyone who might know his resting place killed. Wikipedia.

Genghis Khan

Many famous figures in history went to great lengths to ensure that they would be remembered. Many would design their own tombs or mausoleums. Others wrote their own requiem masses. Not so Genghis Khan. For, despite being the greatest warlord of his era, and ruling over huge swathes of the earth, he himself insisted that he be buried in an unmarked grave. Frustratingly for historians, his followers accepted his wishes, leaving nary a clue behind as to his final resting place.

At the peak of his powers, Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire stretched across almost all of Central Asia and China. He united with tribes that he could work with and mercilessly killed those who opposed his expansion. But he wasn’t just a warlord. He was a skilled diplomat too, setting up extensive trade links and promoting a system of meritocracy under him to keep ambitious officers satisfied.

There are a number of stories relating to Genghis Khan’s death. Some say he fell from his horse and succumbed to his injuries. Other accounts have it that a Western Xis princess assassinated him after earning his trust. Other still say he died as he lived, in battle. Either way, he died in August of 1227, just outside of the city of Yinchaun, in modern-day China. Moreover, he practiced religious tolerance and was a cultural innovator in many ways, not least through his adoption and promotion of a single writing system across all the lands he ruled over.

Years before his eventual death, Genghis gave senior members of his army an order: when he died, he was to be buried in an unmarked grave. This was in full keeping with the customs of his tribe. So, when he did indeed die, his people followed his wishes. It’s highly likely that, again as per tradition, he was laid to rest close to his birthplace. This means his body was taken back close to the town of Khentii Aimag, and most probably put into the ground close to the Burkhan Khaldun mountain and the Onon River.

Legend has it that the men accompanying his body killed anyone they came across on their journey so that they wouldn’t see where the great man was buried. There are even some accounts suggesting that hundreds of horses were used to trample the ground of the burial place – with the animals and their riders then slain – or even a river diverted to disguise the location. Whether any of this it true is open to debate. But what cannot be denied is that nobody will probably ever know where Genghis Khan lies – just as he would have liked it.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Thomas Paine’s body was taken back to England and then vanished for good. Library of America.

Thomas Paine

In life, Thomas Paine, was one of the most respected and distinguished men in the world. He was not only a great thinker, he put his beliefs into action too, becoming one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. His written works are still relevant – and, indeed, sometimes still controversial – today, and he is written into the history books as a political activist, philosopher and even a revolutionary. In death, however, he has not been accorded such respect. Even now, a century on from his demise, even the whereabouts of his body (or, at least, the majority of it) is unknown.

Born in the English county of Norfolk in 1737, Paine was a true firebrand of his time. Like many others, he migrated to the British American Colonies in 1774, assisted by Benjamin Franklin. He arrived on American soil just in time to join in the successful revolution. But soon, he was on the move again, heading back across the Atlantic to France. It was here he wrote some of his most influential, and provocative, works. He finally returned to America, dying in Greenwich Village, New York, in June of 1809.

Given the essays he had written on Christian faith, it’s not surprising that only six people came to his funeral. Nor is it surprising that men of the Quaker faith refused to let Paine be buried on their ground. So, his friends ended up burying him under a tree on his own farm. And here he would have stayed if it weren’t for his old friend William Cobbett. A radical himself, he wanted to give Paine a hero’s burial in his native England. So, he dug up his bones and set off across the ocean. For some reason, Corbett never did carry out his plan. That’s why, when he died, Paine’s bones were still among his possessions. In the confusion, they were lost, and nobody knows for sure what happened to them after that.

Over the years, several people have come forward claiming to have part of Paine’s body in their possession. Could it really be that the Founding Father has a rib in France or a skull in Australia? The only confirmed part is a lock of Paine’s hair. This is buried on his farm in New Rochelle, though even the location of this is rumored to be kept secret by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Sir Francis Drake was given a sea burial, though where remains a mystery. Wikipedia.

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake was Queen Elizabeth I’s go-to man for naval warfare and exploration. This was a man who circumnavigated the globe (the second person to do so, in fact) and who claimed the territory that is now modern-day California for England. Drake also led the English navy against the Spanish armada. Plus, he’s credited with bringing not only tobacco but also potatoes to the British Isles. Quite a legacy. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never granted a proper burial in Westminster Abbey. Instead, he body lies at the bottom of the ocean. A watery grave yet to be located.

Upon leaving the navy a hero, Drake went into business as a pirate. He also made a small fortune in the slave trade, taking captives from Africa to work in the English colonies of North America. Despite surviving countless battles, and despite having had a huge price on his head, Drake ended up dying of dysentery. He passed away, aged 56, while his ship was moored off the coast of Panama. As per his death bed request, he was dressed in his full uniform. He was then placed in a lead-lined coffin and this was thrown overboard.

Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to find Drake’s body. Most research points to him being buried at sea close to the wrecks of two British ships, the Delight and the Elizabeth. Both of these vessels sank soon after the legendary admiral’s death. Plus, it’s historical record that Drake died while moored off the coast of Portobelo, right next to the Panamanian shoreline. But despite the clues, no one has got lucky so far. For now, the Great Briton’s watery grave remains a mystery, and this doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon.

10 Unknown – or Contested- Resting Places of Historical Greats
Julius Cesar visited Alexander the Great’s resting place, but where he is now is a mystery. Wikipedia.

Alexander the Great

Almost all of the great men and women of ancient times now lie in sites unknown. Nobody will ever know where Roman emperors or Greek philosophers were buried, for example. So, in this regard, it’s not so surprising that the final resting place of Alexander the Great has been lost to history. But what does make it peculiar is that the great leader was reportedly buried in a golden sarcophagus and placed in a tomb so elaborate that even the ancients were desperate to find its location.

Though he died young, at the age of just 32, Alexander had achieved a huge amount in just three decades. He commanded one of the largest empires the world had ever seen or has even seen since. His domain stretched from the Ionian Sea in Greece all the way to the Himalayas. This was no fluke: by all accounts, he was a skilled tactician and possibly even the greatest general of ancient times. He was never defeated in battle. Instead, he died in his own palace, slowly and in pain.

Some accounts suggest that he drank bad wine. Or maybe unclean water. Modern theories suggest he might have died of malaria, typhoid or even meningitis. Whatever the cause, he died in June of 323BC. His body was reverentially placed in a golden sarcophagus. This was then filled with honey and then put in a gold casket. It was then loaded up on wheels for the journey back to his native Macedon.

The thing is, it never got there. Along the way, Ptolemy II hijacked the funeral procession and took the sarcophagus to Memphis, Egypt. One of his successors then took it to the city of Alexandria, where Pompey, Julius Cesar, Augustus all visited to admire it. In the year 200, Emperor Septimius Severus closed off the tomb. And then? Who knows. Nobody has been able to pinpoint where the luxurious tomb ended up. Indeed, the whereabouts of Alexander the Great remains one of the true great mysteries of archaeology and the source of many theories. Could he still be lying in Egypt? Or how about in Venice, as some claim? The mystery remains huge, just like Alexander’s empire.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Sir Francis Drake’s body ‘close to being found off Panama'”. BBC, October 2011.

“Thomas Paine’s Remains Are Still a Bone of Contention”. Los Angeles Times, April 2001.

“Shakespeare’s skull: New chapter in hunt for missing head”. BBC News, March 2016.

“The mystery of Mozart’s burial uncovered”. Limelight Magazine, July 2013.

“Remains of Federico Garcia Lorca ‘hidden at the bottom of a well”. Daily Telegraph, April 2013.

“Leonardo da Vinci paintings analyzed for DNA to solve grave mystery”. Daily Telegraph, May 2016.

“7 Lost Burial Sites”. Evan Andrews, History.com, July 2015.