Uncover the world’s most haunting crypts, catacombs & bone churches. From the Capuchin Crypt to the vast Paris Catacombs, explore our macabre travel guide to the dead.
Uncover the world’s most haunting crypts, catacombs & bone churches. From the Paris Catacombs to the Capuchin Crypt, let’s crack open the macabre travel guide and explore the best places to contemplate our own mortality.
For centuries, humans have been both fascinated and terrified by the mystery of death and the afterlife. This has manifested throughout the ages in various forms of morbid art that culminated in elaborate 19th century depictions of memento mori – the contemplation of mortality, reminders that life is fleeting and one day we will eventually die. Certain religious orders, namely Capuchin and Franciscan monks, took this to new heights with the creation of ossuaries where they adorned the walls and ceilings in the skeletal and mummified remains of their brethren.
These macabre destinations have been built around the world as a way to honor the dead, provide a place for reflection, and remind the living of their mortality. Among the most famous are the Paris Catacombs, the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, the Chapel of Bones in Portugal, and the Church of Bones itself, Sedlec Ossuary.
Let’s explore the the crypts, catacombs and bone churches you have to visit before you become part of the display.
1. Capuchin Crypt – Rome
The crypt of the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins) holds the remains of 3,700 Capuchin friars who died between 1500 and 1870. There are five crypts in total, some dedicated to specific bones such as the Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, and Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones.
When construction of the crypt was completed in 1631, the friars brought over the remains of thousands of their brothers that they exhumed from the old monastery. Since then, many Capuchins have donated their bodies for use as crypt decor.
2. Chapel of Bones – Evora, Portugal
Franciscan monks emptied medieval cemeteries throughout the city to decorate the Capela dos Ossos with the bones of some 5,000 individuals as a reminder of our mortality. Words over the entrance read “We bones that are here await yours.” On the roof, an inscription from the Latin Vulgate reads Melior est die mortis die nativitatis – “Better is the day of death than the day of birth.”
There are skeletons hanging from ropes, as well as the corpses of an adult and a child displayed in glass cases.
3. Catacombs of Lima – Lima, Peru
The catacombs beneath the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco served as the city cemetery during Spanish colonial times. The vast complex was built by the Franciscan order in 1549 and continued to be in use until it was closed in 1810 following the Peruvian War of Independence.
The catacombs were forgotten about until 1951 when they were rediscovered and opened as a museum.
The bones of an estimated 25,000 people are organized into different rooms by type, and in some cases are displayed in an artistic fashion.
The tunnels are connected to numerous buildings throughout the city, including the Government Palace. Attempts to map the entire area have failed, leaving the full extent of the catacombs unknown.
4. Sedlec Ossuary – Kutná Hora, Czechia
Sedlec Ossuary, known as the “Bone Church,” houses the bones of some 40,000-70,000 people, all arranged as decorations and furniture. The chandelier, for example, contains at least one of every bone in the human body.
The cemetery of Sedlec Abbey became a popular burial place after dirt from Golgotha was spread over it in 1278. In the following years, the dead from the Hussite Wars and the first wave of the Black Death in the 14th century filled the cemetery up.
Around 1400, a church was built in the center of the cemetery with an ossuary beneath, where the bones unearthed during construction were piled up and later arranged into artistic designs over the next 400 years.
5. Chapel of Skulls – Poland
Inspired by the Capuchin crypt in Rome, Father Vaclav Tomaszek began building the Chapel of Skulls in Czermna in 1776, filling it with the disinterred bones of 3,000 individuals who died in war, or from famine and disease to serve as both a memorial and a memento mori. A door in the floor opens to reveal the remains of another 21,000 people.
When he died, Tomaszek’s own skull was placed on the altar alongside other skulls he found interesting, such as one said to have belonged to a giant, and one eaten away by syphilis.
6. San Bernardino alle Ossa – Milan, Italy
When the basilica cemetery ran out of space in 1210, a room was built to hold all the relocated bones. The bones were later arranged decoratively on the walls when the church was first restored in 1679. Baroque artist Sebastiano Ricci frescoed the vault of the ossuary with angels in 1695, completing what is a uniquely macabre Roccoco-style interior.
King John V of Portugal was inspired to build the Chapel of Bones in Évora (above) after a visit to San Bernardino in 1738.
7. Capuchin Catacombs – Palermo, Italy
When the cemetery of Palermo’s Capuchin monastery was filled in the 16th century, the monks began excavating beneath it to carve out new catacombs where they could bury their dead. They began mummifying their deceased brothers to place them on display in the catacombs in 1599, a technique they perfected over time and eventually used on two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo when burial was opened to the wealthy public.
The catacomb has multiple halls with interments separated by categories such as men, women, virgins, children, priests, and monks.
The last burial occurred in 1939, bringing the total to 8,000 corpses and 1,252 mummified individuals.
8. Paris Catacombs
The best known of these locations, the Paris Catacombs are filled with the remains of six million Parisians who were exhumed from the city’s overflowing cemeteries in 1786. Remains dating back to the Middle Ages were dug up and moved down into the extensive mining tunnels beneath the city, turning the miles of dark passages into the world’s largest ossuary.
We recommend you take one of the public tours of the catacombs, as the people who sneak in at night often get lost in the morbid labyrinth and die.
If you can’t make it to Paris, you can always tour the catacombs virtually.
Have you visited any of these places? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.