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What is a Mausoleum? 9 Things You Need to Know About Mausoleums

9 Things You Need to Know About Mausoleums

What is a mausoleum? What do you need to know about a mausoleum to get a grasp of its history and purpose?

Today we’re answering these questions and more from an objective point of view. We’ll take an in-depth look at the different types of mausoleums (yes, there’s more than one), the meaning and function of a mausoleum crypt, and much more.

So whether you’re new to funeral service, thinking about future planning, or simply curious, you’ve come to the right place to learn more.

9 Things You Need to Know About Mausoleums

At a glance, today we’ll be covering everything you need to know about:

  • The purpose of mausoleums
  • The historical significance of mausoleums
  • Burial above ground
  • The different types of mausoleums
  • Mausoleum crypts
  • How mausoleum crypts are sealed
  • What it’s like inside a mausoleum
  • Whether or not mausoleums have a smell
  • Whether or not you can visit a mausoleum

Does this sound good to you? Then let’s begin!

1. What Is a Mausoleum?

So, what exactly is a mausoleum? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a mausoleum as:

1: a large tomb.

especially: a usually stone building with places for entombment of the dead above ground

2: a large gloomy building or room

Merriam-Webster

The second definition may be accurate from an aesthetic point of view, but the first definition is what we’re going to focus on. A mausoleum is simply a tomb “room.” It is a sizable monument, usually made of stone, designed to house the remains of the deceased above ground.

Why an above-ground mausoleum instead of an underground grave?

For most, it comes down to family tradition and preference. In many modern-day cities, mausoleums are simply more practical than in-ground entombment. Since graves can be stacked on top of each other in an above-ground structure, they are thus more common where the population is dense. Another good example of this is New Orleans, where above-ground entombment is extremely popular due to the nature of the soil.

What you need to know: A mausoleum is a structure designed for burial or entombment above the ground.

2. Mausoleums Have Great History & Significance

Civilization has made use of mausoleums for thousands of years. Among the first were the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, which hold the remains of the Pharaohs and others of great prestige.

The term mausoleum actually derives from the name of a ruler of old, King Mausolus. He was the leader of Caria (modern day Asia Minor), and when he died his wife commissioned his remains to be entombed above ground in an elaborate, beautiful building. This building, known as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, is now in ruins but is one of the 7 Wonders of the World.

What you need to know: While mausoleums are of great historical significance, their purpose is simply to entomb a deceased (or a family of deceased) above ground rather than in the ground, in contrast to traditional burial.

3. Burial Above Ground Typically Means a Mausoleum

When you hear someone talking about above-ground burial, they are usually referring to entombment in a mausoleum or inurnment in a columbarium niche. That being said, there are different kinds of above-ground mausoleums as well as in-ground crypts (see below).

The main thing to remember is that while the word “burial” denotes images of traditional cemetery graves, all six feet under, there are many other options available when it comes to final disposition. Above-ground entombment in a mausoleum is just one of those options.

What you need to know: Burial above ground, more often than not, is in reference to mausoleum entombment.

More info: Disposition Options: Cremation, Burial, & Many More

4. Types of Mausoleums

We’ve answered the question “What is a mausoleum.” Now let’s a take a look at the various types of mausoleums.

Public Mausoleums

Public mausoleums, also known as community mausoleums, entomb multiple individuals inside one building. There may be hundreds of interments in a public mausoleum, or more or less, depending on the location. A public mausoleum is similar to a public cemetery, in that anyone may be entombed there, and anyone is able to visit and pay their respects to the deceased. Some public mausoleum also contain columbarium niches for cremated remains, as well as crypts for caskets.

A good example of a public mausoleum is the Taj Mahal in India, which houses the remains of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife.

Private Mausoleums

In contrast to public mausoleums, private mausoleums are for exclusive, family use. They are sometimes referred to as custom mausoleums, especially if they were constructed in advance of (and especially for) a certain person’s death. Private mausoleums may be erected on private property, or within a purchased section within a cemetery. They are buildings which the public may or may not have access to visit.

A good example of a private mausoleum is that of the late Princess Diana of Wales. It sits on her family’s ancestral land and is inaccessible to the public.

Garden Mausoleums

A garden mausoleum is simply a mausoleum situated outdoors rather than indoors. Garden mausoleums may have provisions for niches (for cremated remains) as well as casket interment. They are generally easily accessible and are often beautifully decorated with plants, flowers, statues and other tranquil memorials…hence the name.

Lawn Crypts

As opposed to every other type of mausoleum mentioned here, lawn crypts are underground rather than above-ground. The term crypt generally refers to a chamber designed to house a casket or urn. A lawn crypt may hold the casketed remains of several individuals, side-by-side within a section of a cemetery and/or above and below others. Often times the individuals interred together in a lawn crypt are family, but this is by no means a rule.

Sarcophagus Mausoleums

The word sarcophagus often brings to mind images of fancy stone coffins entombing those of ancient nobility. A sarcophagus mausoleum, on the other hand, is a mausoleum that is partially above ground, and partially below. Unlike the traditional vestibule style (see below) that so many of us are familiar with, a sarcophagus mausoleum has no doors or even windows as a part of its structure. Most of its crypts are underground, with usually one crypt situated above ground.

Vestibule Mausoleums

Vestibule mausoleums are those that, to describe them simply, look like little houses. They are known as vestibule mausoleums due to the fact that a vestibule is the highlight of their structure (that being the antechamber, or entrance area, leading into the inner vault). These are the types most likely popping into your mind’s eye when you hear the word mausoleum; they often incorporate relief sculptures, stained glass windows, steps leading up to the doorway, or Greek-like marble columns. They are also usually private or family-owned.

What you need to know: There are several different types of mausoleums, from the traditional vestibule style to lawn crypts.

5. What is a Mausoleum Crypt?

You already know the answer to “What is a mausoleum?” You are also now aware of the many different types of mausoleums. So now it’s time to talk more about mausoleum crypts…and how they are really the main focus of everything we are talking about in this article.

A crypt within a mausoleum is the part of the structure that holds the remains of the deceased. It’s the heart of the entire monument, so to speak…the most sacred part of the mausoleum and the whole reason it exists. The building itself is a memorial to the deceased. But it also provides protection for the crypt and the remains inside.

What you need to know: The crypt is that all-important component of the mausoleum that holds the remains of the deceased.

6. How are Mausoleum Crypts Sealed?

An important aspect of above-ground burial is knowing that your casket, crypt, and mausoleum as a whole are secure from the elements and nature of the ground. Many mausoleums in fact advertise themselves as “clean and dry,” contrasting themselves from the cold dampness of the earth.

Part of ensuring this security is making sure the crypts are properly sealed. Once the casket is placed in the crypt (and sometimes after the casket itself is sealed in heavy plastic wrapping), the opening of the crypt is usually closed with an inner covering and sealed with a special glue or caulking. The finished outer covering will sit over that.

Sometimes you hear about a casket “exploding” in a mausoleum, causing damage to the building and other crypts around it. This can happen due to the buildup of bodily gas within a decomposing body (even an embalmed one), but it is very rare.

What you need to know: Inner and outer coverings, along with special glue or caulk, seal mausoleum crypts.

7. Inside a Mausoleum

Have you ever wanted to venture inside a mausoleum, just to see what it was like? Or maybe you have family entombed in one, and are planning to pay your respects in the near future. It’s only natural that you want to know what to expect.

The inside of a private, vestibule-style mausoleum will be a fairly large room, sometimes dark but often lit with natural light. It will contain the above-ground remains of the deceased. The crypts that hold the remains may be within a wall, or they may be above-ground tombs that are horizontal to the floor. In a public mausoleum, electricity may provide a soft light, climate control and sometimes even background music. You can expect for it to be a very quiet, very solemn place.

It may help to know that, just as there are different types of mausoleums, there are different types of crypts as well. The most common is the single crypt, which are just as they sound: they contain the remains on one individual. There are companion crypts, which take up a single space but are able to contain two individual remains. Side-by-side crypts are also common, where two crypts sit next to one another. There’s also traditional family crypts, which hold (you guessed it) an entire family’s remains. “Westminster” crypts is another name for these family mausoleum crypts.

What you need to know: The inside of a mausoleum is a fairly large room. It’s sometimes dark, but it’s possible that natural light or even electric light is present. It may hold single crypts, companion crypts, side-by-side crypts, or the crypts of an entire family.

8. Do Mausoleums Smell?

This is actually a pretty common question, and the answer is no, mausoleums do not smell.

You think mausoleums would have an odor, right? After all, they are enclosed rooms filled with dead bodies! This would be the case, at least to an extent, if modern mausoleums did not incorporate drainage and ventilation systems.

Well-kept mausoleums run angled drain pipes from the crypts. So even if there is gas or any other leakage coming from a casket (fun fact: this is known as casket “burping”), it does not cause a problem.

Ventilation is also crucial. It allows any foul gas or “burping” that does escape from the casket into the crypt to disperse immediately. At worst, a well-kept mausoleum will have a dry, dusty smell.

Unfortunately, a mausoleum that is not properly maintained can have unseen trouble with pipes and/or ventilation, and this can lead to leaks and/or big problems with odor. It’s rare, but sometimes in the news you hear about a mausoleum that is having issues. The structure may have obvious leaks coming from crypts and the smell can become so strong that it attracts flies and keeps visitors away.

In other words, if you are in the process of end-of-life-planning and are thinking of mausoleum entombment, it’s important to do your research before you decide on a specific location. Make sure the mausoleum is well kept, ventilated, and regularly maintained!

What you need to know: Well-maintained mausoleums do not smell because they incorporate drainage and ventilation systems to keep away any unpleasant odors. It’s rare, but unfortunately not every mausoleum is properly cared for. It’s important to do your research before deciding on a particular location.

9. Can I Visit a Mausoleum?

Generally, yes you can. If the mausoleum you want to visit is public, you can come by any time during open hours.

If it is a private mausoleum, and you want to pay your respects to the memory of someone who you know who is entombed there, you will probably need to contact the funeral home or cemetery management to arrange a visit.

Sometimes an entire mausoleum belongs to a family. In this case, you will definitely need to ask permission before visiting. These family mausoleums are usually under lock and key.

What you need to know: Yes, you can visit a public mausoleum.


Thank you for reading! We’ve answered your big question, “What is a mausoleum?” and hopefully have enlightened you on so much more.

With the knowledge you now have about mausoleums and how they work, you’ll be able to make educated decisions about your own final disposition, or in the very least start planning better for the future. Be sure to check out our Funeral Planning Guide for more information.

We want to know what you think of what you just read! Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.

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