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To convey the lives of the people buried beneath them, and the expectations for what comes after death, symbolism has long been part of tombstones. Below is our guide to some of the most prevalent cemetery symbols. 


Graphic created by Michelle Enemark, text by Allison C. Meier. 

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article-imagePhoto by Jens Petersen via Wikimedia

Lionfish, though stunning creatures, are very, very dangerous to marine life, given their venomous spines, sophisticated hunting techniques, and extremely high reproduction rate (a mature female can produce up to 2 million eggs per year). Though native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in the 1980s the aquarium trade brought these creatures into the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, where they have no natural predators. As Lionfish are also voracious and wide-ranging eaters, they have been decimating their surrounding reef life ever since. They are now considered an extremely invasive species, and it has been suggested that they are poised to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history.

Scientists and conservationists are trying many different tactics to curb the lionfish population. In Roatan Marine Park, Honduras, efforts have been made to convince people to eat the fish themselves — they are said to be delicious once the venomous spine is removed. Although spears and harpoons are illegal in Honduras, the park has also gotten special government approval give local divers licenses to hunt lionfish with fishing spears, even sponsoring contests to see who can kill the most in a day. 

article-imagephoto by Judy Baxter via Flickr

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article-imageGargoyle under Budapest (via Labirintus)

Carrying only a gas lamp, at the heart of the Buda Castle Labyrinth there is nothing except for slimy damp walls, darkness, and things that go bump in the night. After 6 pm it’s lights out in Labirintus, and each group gets a single lantern to navigate around the network of natural tunnels found in the underbelly of Budapest's Castle Hill.

I hear a sequence of squishes as my feet leave an impression in the muddy path, and I can smell smoke. I’m a good few metres underground, there shouldn’t be any smoke here, except for the flame leaping up inside the metal canister hanging off my wrist, but the smell is different. I can hear an echo of voices behind bounding off the stone walls carrying up from different tunnels.

I hold the lamp up, the warm red flame licks the walls and I hear an uncomfortable hum in the background. Some sinister music plays quietly, but becomes louder with each step. The air feels heavier, and there is a haze of smoke lingering. I hear screams in the distance, either from others in the tunnel or as part of the eerie soundtrack being pumped in. The light illuminates fragments, bits of rubble with an Ottoman slant to them, a stone turban perhaps from a disembodied statue, and a placard on the wall with a picture of the infamous Vlad Dracul.

Above the portrait, words inscribed in gothic script say “Dracula’s Chamber” in both Hungarian and English. I know nothing is going to jump out at me, but I still hesitate to venture further into the dark, smoke clad chambers alone, and decide to wait for a few Australian tourists I left behind a few rooms back.

article-imageInside the labyrinth (photograph by Jerzy Kociatkiewicz/Flickr)

The labyrinthine network of tunnels under Buda Castle arose from the hot thermal waters coursing through the subterranean underbelly of today’s Budapest. Archaeological evidence points to inhabitants living down the caves from pre-history right up to the Middle Ages, but apart from offering shelter, these caves hold a darker history in the years that followed.

A Turkish Harem once existed near the entrance to the labyrinth, and several female skeletons were found in the caves dating back to the era of the Ottoman occupation. Some believe that the women were thrown into wells when the Turks were forced out of the castle, but there is a more sinister legend behind the bones. One gruesome version of the tale is that the Pasha of Buda bricked up these women from his harem once he got bored of them.

The labyrinth also functioned as both a prison and as a torture chamber. In the 15th century, its darkest, dankest chambers held its most infamous resident — Vlad Tepes, better known to you and me as “Dracula.”

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In terms of abandonment, ghost towns get all the love — there are a spooky 160 of them on Atlas Obscura as of this writing. These gaping remains of human activity departed are both unnerving and often beautiful, but what about ghost islands? Around the world whole island communities have been evacuated and deserted, leaving the landmasses to nature and the atrophy of time. Here are eight of these ominous places on the water, and the details on why people left, and if you can visit the isolated ruins. 


article-imageHashima Island (photograph by kntrty/Wikimedia)

Abandoned: 1974

Eerie Elements: Derelict, fortress-like compounds on Hashima Island once housed workers for a coal mining facility. The island was nicknamed "battleship" ("gunkanjima") for its typhoon-resilient architecture that's now crumbling like a dystopic wasteland. 

Can You Go? Yes, tours have been operating since 2009. You can also explore it digitally through the ominous Hashima Island: A Forgotten World interactive project.

Exploring Hashima Island in 2012 (photograph by Jordy Meow/Wikimedia)

Hashima Island in 2010 (photograph by Jordy Meow/Wikimedia)


article-imagePoveglia Island (photograph by Angelo Meneghini/

Abandoned: 1968

Eerie Elements: Poveglia served as a plague quarantine station for Venice from 1793 to 1814, and some rumors state that 50% of the soil is composed of the remains of the dead. A mental hospital was later opened, and remains in ruins in the overgrowth of ivy. It's also not the only ghost island in the Venice area, which is spotted with these abandoned relics of eras gone by. 

Can You Go? While technically off-limits, boats do offer visits circling the island, and hire the right one and maybe you can step on the unsettling shores. 

article-imagePoveglia Island in 2010 (photograph by ntenny/Flickr)

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Bones in preparation (courtesy Skulls Unlimited)

Have you seen the ghost of Tom?
Long white bones with the skin all gone.
Po-oo-or Old Tom!
Wouldn't it be chilly with no skin on?

This well-known childhood rhyme proposes a pretty thoughtful question that has to be answered with an affirmative: Yeah, it would be pretty chilly with your bony skeleton all exposed and no skin on. 

At the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, bones, skeletons, and skulls are the main attraction. Complete skeletons of every variety, from deer to dog, hawk to human, are on display. In fact, it's known as “America’s only skeleton museum.” In of itself, this collection is surely unique. But that isn’t their only claim to fame, or even the most impressive attribute of the museum or the retail portion of the facility Skulls Unlimited, the “world’s leading supplier of osteological specimens."

The reason I entered their rather non-descript building was to discover how they created a skeleton, or more accurately, the tedious, smelly, and strangely hypnotic process of stripping the skin away (and muscles, tendons, fat, and anything else that can be considered flesh) in order to get their “long white bones.”

article-imagecourtesy Skulls Unlimited

Jay Villermarette began collecting skulls at the age of seven. The cranial portions of cats, dogs, cows, and deer were the first to join his collection. The skulls didn’t necessarily represent anything particularly morbid to Jay, but rather it gave him a chance to learn about the differences and similarities of all types of animals, including humans.

Many of the bone samples he collected from his backyard and beyond still had scraps of flesh clinging to it. He tried burning, boiling, and even using lye to get rid of the meat, with no method working particularly well. Then, Jay realized nature had it right all along. When animals die in the wild, the decomposition process includes insects enjoying a delicious rotting meal. The hungriest, most effective, and efficient of these insects is the dermestid beetle, or as it is more commonly known, the skin beetle.

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