A chandelier made of bones, skulls on altars, hanging skeletons -- enter the creepy world of crypts and catacombs for a look into burial practices of the past. Warning: Images not for the squeamish.
Down in the cold, dry basement of the Capuchin Monastery, on the outskirts of Palermo, Italy, are the remains of 8,000 people. When the monastery outgrew its original cemetery in 1599, catacombs were excavated beneath the building. In addition to friars interred here, well-known locals chose the crypts as their final resting place. The catacombs are open to the public; iron grills prevent visitors from touching or posing with those laid to rest here.
A series of manholes and ladders lead visitors to the creepy catacombs of Paris. In 1786, the cemeteries of Paris churches were filled to overflowing. The government saw a solution in long-abandoned stone quarries in and around the capital. The resulting catacombs eventually became the final resting place of some 6 million people. Following a vandalism incident, the catacombs were closed to the public in September 2009, but reopened a few months later.
The Brno Ossuary in the Czech Republic is estimated to hold the remains of more than 50,000 people, making it the second-largest site of its kind in Europe (behind the Paris Catacombs). The ossuary was established in the 17th century, partially under the Church of St. James. The ossuary was later forgotten, until its rediscovery in 2001. It has been open to public tours since June 2012.
Below the monastery of San Francisco, in the historic center of Lima, Peru, creepy catacombs are filled with skulls and bones. The catacombs were established following the monastery’s construction (in 1774), and remained in use until 1808, when a city cemetery was founded outside of Lima. The catacombs were soon forgotten, until their discovery in 1943. An estimated 70,000 individuals’ remains fill the catacombs' narrow hallways and deep holes.
Light peeks through the darkness at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Following its consecration in 1147 A.D., the cathedral's grounds gave way to cemeteries – a result of the high honor that believers placed on being buried near a church. Interments began in 1735 and continued until 1783, when a new law forbade most burials within the city. Today, the cathedral’s catacombs house the remains of more than 11,000 persons.
St. Paul’s Catacombs, outside of Mdina, Malta, are a series of underground galleries and tombs that date from the fourth to the ninth centuries A.D. Intriguingly, the 24 catacombs, which cradle the tombs of more than 1,000 dead, show evidence of pagan, Jewish and Christian burials side-by-side, with no clear divisions. The excavation of the catacombs began in the late 1800s, under the guidance of a Maltese archaeologist and author. The site is now managed by a national agency, with 2 catacombs open to the public.
The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa (“Mound of Shards”) are a series of tombs in Alexandria, Egypt, that reach a depth of 100 feet. In the 2nd century A.D., they were built for a wealthy family … then forgotten until 1900, when a donkey fell into the access shaft. Human and animal remains have since been found, along with 3 sarcophagi. The catacombs’ name derives from visitors who used to visit the tombs and bring food in terra cotta jars to eat while there. They didn’t wish to bring the containers back home from this place of death, so they would break them … leaving shards behind.
The Sedlec Ossuary is a small chapel in the Czech Republic that happens to have a whole lot of skeletons -- between 40,000 and 70,000, in fact. Some bones are arranged to form decorations in the chapel, including this chandelier of bones. The ghoulish designs are the handiwork of a 19th-century woodcarver who had been hired by an aristocratic family to arrange the bones, which had been interred in the ossuary since 1511.
Some visitors find the Bone House in Hallstatt, Austria, unexpectedly beautiful. We just find it creepy. The small chapel is home to a ghoulish display of 1,200 skulls. It came about in the 12th century, when the neighboring cemetery became filled to capacity. Cremation was forbidden, so bodies would be buried for about 15 years, then exhumed and placed in the chapel. Here, skulls are painted with a floral crown – a practice that began around 1720, in a gesture akin to placing flowers on a grave.
The Skull Chapel in Czerma, Poland, was built in 1776 by a local priest. The chapel serves as the mass grave for nearly 25,000 people who died during the Thirty Years War, 3 Silesian Wars (between Prussia and Austria), as well as from cholera outbreaks and hunger. The priest led the effort to collect the remains and put them in the chapel. The walls and basement are filled with skulls and bones; the remains of those who built the chapel are placed in the center of the church and on the altar.
The Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, in Évora, Portugal, gets its name from the human skulls and bones that cover its interior walls. The chapel was built in the 1500s by a Franciscan monk, who wanted his fellow monks to meditate hard on life’s transient nature. That message is driven home by some 5,000 skeletons, collected from nearby churches, as well as the words by the chapel’s entrance: “We, the bones that are here, await yours.”
In the early 1800s, Serbian rebels stood up to the Ottoman Empire. The Skull Tower was later built using the skulls of Serbs killed during a battle in 1809. In all, 952 skulls were collected and mounted on a tower as a warning to whoever opposed the empire. The tower stood in the open air until liberation of the area in southern Serbia in 1878. By then, much of the tower had eroded. In 1892, donations from all over Serbia led to the construction of a chapel, built around 58 skulls that still remained.