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Burying a Substitute

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Stan: We buried you. We had a funeral, a coffin, a gravestone, the whole thing.
Chuck: You had a coffin? Well, what was in it?
Stan: Well, everybody put something in. Uh... just a cell phone, a beeper, some pictures. I put in some Elvis CDs.

Sometimes due to the circumstances of a character's death, burying them (or whatever other appropriate cultural rite) simply isn't an option. Maybe they were reduced to Ludicrous Gibs and there was Not Enough to Bury, maybe their body was never found, or they simply didn't leave a body behind. Regardless, their loved ones still need some gesture to honor them and say goodbye, so what do they do? They use a substitute of some sort.

Common variations include burying or burning something important to the dead such as a Tragic Keepsake, a uniform, or something along those lines.

The "cenotaph" (literal meaning "empty grave" in Greek) is a related concept: a burial site that doesn't actually hold the remains of the deceased, either because they are elsewhere or because there were no remains to bury. For the purpose of this trope examples of that also count, as it's essentially the same concept, a marker and final resting place for a person, despite their body not being there. As such, there may be some overlap with Shrine to the Fallen.

As a Death Trope there will be spoilers.


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    Comic Books 
  • Alix had a case of this in Alix Senator, where Alix puts up a cenotaph in Enak's memory (he died during Egypt's final battle with Rome), since they Never Found the Body. It later turns out that Enak was alive the whole time, unable to reveal himself due to getting caught in an anti-Roman conspiracy.

    Fan Works 
  • A variation in Abel or Cain: the Animorphs and Chee fake Tom's death, so the Chee dig up a corpse from another grave and pass it off as Tom so his family will have something to bury.
  • In Remembrance of the Fallen and The Only Way to Go, the memorial cemetery on Goralis and Sobaru Lanstar's grave on Bajor are both composed of cenotaphs because the bodies were incinerated.
  • Subverted in the Doctor Who fanfic "Stop All the Clocks", which at first appears to be about the Fifth Doctor burying the fragments of Adric's badge following the events of "Earthshock". At the end, however, Adric shows up, still very much alive, and it turns out that the Doctor was actually burying his irreparably damaged sonic screwdriver.
  • In How the Light Gets In, after Edie is revealed to be the Big Bad, Sara and Laurel dig up her grave to get confirmation. The casket contains a (creepily realistic) dummy. Laurel notes this required help from family members and the funeral was closed casket, so why just bury an empty casket? She concludes the Drama Queen tendencies are genetic.

    Film — Animated 
  • Batman: Under the Red Hood plays with this. Jason Todd is buried after the Joker brutally kills him. However, it turns out that while the body was being prepared for burial, Ra's al Ghul and the League of Assassins took his body and then replaced it with a wax dummy so that they could bring Jason Back from the Dead with the Lazarus Pit.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The novelization of Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne burying the clothing he wore while training with the League of Shadows because it has some of Ducard/Ra's al Ghul's blood on it, and that bloodstain is the only thing he has to mark the Evil Mentor that was almost a second father to him.
  • In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, at the end, Superman dies, and his funeral is held in two places: one in Metropolis where it's more grandiose (with military-style burying) but the casket is actually empty, while the real body is buried at the funeral in Smallville.
  • The Tom Hanks character in Cast Away finds that a funeral had been held for him when he was presumed dead. All sorts of little items or mementos were put in the casket by his friends and family.
  • Furious 7 reveals that Letty's funeral in Fast & Furious used an empty coffin, since her body was never found (in actuality, she's still alive).
  • In The Omen they dig up Damien's birth mother and there's a dog in the casket. It isn't clear if a substitute burial happened or if the dog is the mother.
  • At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey visits the abandoned Lars homestead on Tatooine and buries Luke and Leia's lightsabers, symbolically laying the Skywalker family to rest in the place where their story began.
  • In the movie Seconds (1966), a wealthy middle-aged man who regrets his life choices is given a chance by a secret company to have his youth returned to him and given a second chance to live the life he always wanted to live. All he has to do is leave the fee for this service in his will, then his death will be faked, he will be given youth treatments, and he will be given a new identity and the tools to build a new life. He accepts the offer only to find that he is not happy with his new life. He eventually returns to the company, where he is put on a waiting list to get another new life. He has to sit and wait for this in a room with a whole bunch of other men who are also unsatisfied with their new lives. He finds out too late that when his number comes up he will be killed so that his body can be used to fill the coffin of a new customer that is having his death faked.
  • In S1m0ne, since Simone is virtual, there's no body to bury when Taransky proclaims her dead. The coffin is opened and it reveals a paper cut of Simone being buried.
  • This was used in Starfighter, about a widow who was suing a government contractor after her husband, an Air Force test pilot, was killed flying a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. A lawyer tries to accuse her husband of taking drugs. She says there was no trace of drugs in his system. He points out that it was impossible to determine given the 'limited material' available for testing. She demands to know what he means, and is later shown saying in fury to a friend, "I buried his hands!"

  • A story linked to World War Z called Closure, Ltd. is about a company that people hire to find their zombified relatives so they can give them a burial. Closure often just finds some zombie that looks vaguely like the person in question. All parties involved understand on some level that this may be the case but it's the gesture that is important.
  • Julius Root's funeral in Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception is carried out with an empty casket because he was killed in a bomb blast, and there weren't any remains to be buried.
  • In The Chronicles of Amber, Corwin underwent a sudden and longtime disappearance, (even for what is essentially an immortal demigod, it was a long time) and eventually his family created a cenotaph for him. When he finally returns from exile, he's quite amused by it, and somewhat surprisingly he finds he rather likes hanging out there, as it's a quiet, out of the way spot that is good for getting away from family intrigue and politics for a bit. He also admits that he's more fond of pissing on his own "grave" than he really should be.
  • In one of the Hammer's Slammers stories it's mentioned that since the Slammers are predominantly a nuclear-powered Hover Tank company who deal with high-energy weaponry their next-of-kin usually receive a sealed coffin filled with 70 kilos of sand.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Mad-Eye Moody is killed by Voldemort, but his body isn't found. However, Harry sees a false eye on Dolores Umbridge's office door that resembles Moody's, and suspects she found and stole it. He thus steals it back and buries it in the forest.
  • A variation shows up in John Grisham's The Partner, where the main character buries 4 cinder blocks because he needs the corpse of the guy who died in order to fake his own death.
  • Echoes of Honor opens with one of the two state funerals held for Honor Harrington, both of which used empty coffins because Haven didn't return her body for burial. Because the execution was all special effects and Haven didn't have a body to return.
  • The Doctor Who Short Trips story "Wake" is set on a funeral planet, where the death customs of many different races are catered for. Following the events of "Earthshock", the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa have come to place Adric's badge in one of what is implied to be an infinite number of alcoves. These alcoves are provided so that those who have no body to bury, cremate or otherwise dispose of may leave a token of remembrance in the form of something that was important to the deceased. It's mentioned that the First Doctor performed the same ritual post- "The Daleks' Master Plan", using Trojan soil for Katarina and a utility belt for Sara Kingdom.
  • The Highlander tie-in novel, "The Element Of Fire" had a flashback in which Connor was a sailor, and apparently died at sea saving another man's life. His spare set of clothes wrapped around a stone were used for a Burial at Sea. When they were tossed overboard, Connor threw them back on the ship, revealing he "wasn't quite dead yet".
  • In Doctor Sleep, the True Knot bury keepsakes associated with the deceased, such as an item given by the deceased to a surviving member of the group. Since members of this group dematerialize at death, there is no actual body, so this trope is their best equivalent.
  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: The protagonist herself has to fake her death, complete with a fake funeral. Possessions are buried instead of a body for obvious reasons, though the possessions buried are appropriate in regards to the fact that they all items she no longer has any use for and can't get back without the risk of unnecessarily tipping the wrong people off as to what really happened.
  • Experimental Film: After young Hyatt Whitcomb went missing, an empty coffin bearing his name was buried in the family crypt.
  • In the Dean Koontz book Whispers, exhuming Bruno Frye's coffin reveals bags of cement instead of a body. The other Bruno Frye had recovered his twin's body to take home. At this point in the story, only Bruno knows there are two.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Leftovers one day about 2% of the world's population just suddenly vanishes, with no apparent cause and No Body Left Behind. After a little while a company comes around that will build expensive, lifelike dolls that look like the deceased for a mock burial.
  • In the first of many cases in Stargate SG-1 where Daniel was mistakenly thought to be dead, the team sends a wreath through the stargate during his funeral because the body was believed incinerated.
  • Implied to be done in The Incredible Hulk (1977). In the pilot we see David Banner's already filled in gravesite as they bury his colleague/love interest. After everyone leaves David comes out of hiding and spends some time contemplating his gravestone.
  • In Criminal Minds, Emily Prentiss is apparently killed off and buried due to real-life budget cuts. However, at the next season's opening episode she turns up very much alive, with an explanation that she'd really been shot, but the hospital saved her and the BAU leaders arranged for her funeral to be faked as part of a covert op. (Her coffin was full of sandbags.)
  • In Arrow, both Oliver and his father have gravestones, but no graves, because they were Lost at Sea. Oliver has both removed, even though his father really is dead. (Ostensibly to further his bad-boy cover persona, but possibly also because he knows his father has a real grave on Lian Yu). Laurel also tells Oliver they buried an empty coffin at her sister Sara's grave—-which then ends up being used when Sara dies for real several seasons later. In the Grand Finale, Oliver's coffin is once again empty, but only because he died (a second time) in the antimatter universe and his body was never recovered. Anatoly asks if the coffin is empty, and the others confirm that it's full of mementos.
  • Highlander had an episode where a teenage girl pre-Immortal suffered her first death and became an Immortal. Duncan smuggled her out of the morgue, and her adoptive parents bury an empty coffin at her funeral due to "the morgue losing her body".

    Puppet Shows 
  • In one episode of Fraggle Rock, Gobo is thought to have been eaten by Sprocket, and all his friends find is his hat. Boober suggests burying the hat as a way of remembering him, just before Gobo reappears and reveals he's not dead.

    Video Games 
  • In Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, one Quest Giver asks Miriam to procure certain objects that she will use as alternatives to proper burials for many villagers who are killed by The Legions of Hell.
  • Part of the Backstory of Michael in Grand Theft Auto V is that he decided to retire from crime, became an informant for the FIB, and sold out the gang of bank robbers he was working with. The FIB faked his death in the wake of the shootout they had with his crew, buried another member of the bank robbers in his place, and put him into Witness Protection.
  • Ys: Memories of Celceta provides a variation. When the town of Highland saw that Adol didn't return after falling into a waterfall, they assumed he had died, and thus erected a grave for him and buried his washed-up belongings. They're quite shocked yet pleasantly surprised when they find out he survived.

  • Part of the backstory of Durkon from The Order of the Stick is that his father died before he was born, pulling a Heroic Sacrifice to kill a monster ravaging the area. Since the sacrifice took the form of collapsing a cave on both himself and the rampaging troll, the only part of old dad buried under his funeral marker is a lock of his beard that Durkon's mom had in her keeping.
  • A few examples in Schlock Mercenary: when Hob dies, Tagon's Toughs can't find any of his body, so they arrange a cenotaph. (The amorphs, meanwhile, present him with a 'proper' burial, made more poignant by the fact that they'd much rather eat him.) And when Kaff Tagon dies, the circumstances of his death preclude anything but a symbolic funeral. Of course, this being Schlock Mercenary, The "Fun" in "Funeral" happens quite shortly. In yet another example, the Toughs are hired to provide a substitute when they're acting as security for King Xinchub's funeral and it turns out his blood contains unknown Nano Machines that the government doesn't want in their soil, so they switch it for a brainless clone which the Toughs were already planning to do before the blood-nannies came up.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: Has the empty grave variant for a character who died and was buried deep in a Forbidden Zone. Their actual grave marker was put in a place that is much easier to visit.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Man Who Killed Batman", Batman is believed to have been killed by a petty crook. After the Joker becomes convinced that Batman really is dead, he gives Batman's cowl something of a Viking Funeral.
  • In the Justice League episode "Hereafter", Superman disappears after being hit with what's supposedly a Disintegrator Ray. Everyone but Batman believes him dead, so they hold a funeral for him with the rest of the Justice League (minus Batman) carrying a coffin with the left-behind scraps of his uniform inside.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In the episode "Marge Simpson in Screaming Yellow Honkers", there is a funeral motorcade moving slowly which angers Marge. Reverend Lovejoy informs Marge that there actually isn't a body in the hearse because the deceased in question was "lost at sea" and the casket was just full of bricks.
    • At the end of the episode "My Mother the Carjacker", Homer's mother hijacks a prison bus and escapes from the pursuing police, only for the bus to go off a cliff and end up trapped under a rockslide. The Simpson family are subsequently shown holding a funeral for Mona (losing the coffin in the process), but Homer later reveals that they Never Found the Body and the coffin was filled with the previous week's garbage.
  • In the BoJack Horseman episode "Live Fast, Diane Nguyen", Diane's father's body is stolen from his funeral. The mortician suggests Diane to buy one of their "replacement bodies".
  • In the South Park episode "The Return of Chef", the kids are unable to retrieve Chef's body following his death. When the funeral is held, a spatula is in the coffin.
  • In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Apokolips Now", when Darkseid is forced to back off from conquering Earth, he gets in a parting shot by instantly vaporizing Dan Turpin, who has been acting as The Commissioner Gordon for Superman and leading the human attempts to resist Darkseid. Despite there being nothing of him to bury, he still gets a funeral and a gravestone.
  • In Regular Show, when Muscle Man's dad dies, his funeral urn contains not his ashes, but the ashes of his trucker's hat. It's never made clear why just his hat was cremated, just that Muscle Man plans to scatter them at the Truckers Hall of Fame.
  • Subverted in the King of the Hill episode "Death Of A Propane Salesman". After Buckley's death from the Mega Lo Mart explosion, Dale thinks Buckley faked his death and that his coffin is empty. So, at his funeral, Dale takes a peek inside, and is so sicked by what he sees that he throws up into the coffin.
  • In the Sealab 2021 episode "Return of Marco", the rest of the crew mention how they had already held a funeral for Marco using instant mashed potatoes to make a replica body.

    Real Life 
  • If a soldier is killed in a really devastating explosion then the coffin that gets shipped home for burial will simply contain sandbags, (and, if possible, the soldier's dog tags) in order that it not feel empty.


Video Example(s):


Burying the gun

Monkey buries Bryce's pistol in a field somewhere in Japan after they resolve the show's main conspiracy to honor his death. Bryce's body was... somewhere else.

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