Visiting the dead might seem like a macabre thing to do, yet few things make you appreciate life more than seeing thousands of skeletons in one place.
If you want to consider memento mori in quieter places, you need to get off the beaten track, so here are 15 beautiful yet unusual crypts, catacombs, and ossuaries you need to visit.
(1) Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, near Prague, Czech Republic
Sedlec is definitely one of the weirdest places in Europe. The Ossuary attracts around 200,000 visitors every year, who come to see the bones of 40,000-70,000 people.
The skeletal remains have been transformed into astonishing works of art, including a chandelier, coats of arms, and even the name of the artist himself. It takes a special kind of person to immortalize themselves using the remains of the dead!
But the Ossuary wasn’t planned to look the way it does. When the cemetery was remodeled in the 16th century, the bones of the exhumed skeletons were simply stacked in the chapel. In 1870, a local woodcarver was employed to make sense of the bones.
No one knows what gave him the idea for the sculptures he created with them. But they certainly make a stunning backdrop for the showdown in my thriller, Crypt of Bone!
(2) Paris Catacombs
Few places in Europe hold the same aura of mystique as the Paris catacombs. But the name is actually a bit of a misnomer. Parts of the tunnels were actually limestone quarries, helping to build Paris itself.
In the late 18th century, overcrowding in the cemeteries caused a public health panic. Les Innocents Cemetery was even condemned.
The authorities relocated the bones to the disused tunnels. The section they used, the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, is one of the few parts of the tunnels open to the public. Visitors, including royalty, have flocked to see the bones since 1867.
But if you believe the myths, that’s not all that’s down there. Rumors persist of a secret cinema, art installations, and even a Nazi bunker.
It’s hardly surprising that some think the catacombs might mark a gateway to Hell!
(3) Catacombs of Rome
Famous for Christian and Jewish burials, the catacombs under Rome contain the remains of all kinds of people who worshipped all kinds of gods, buried together because of overcrowding in the city above.
The catacombs contain important examples of Christian art before 400CE, with decorative frescoes showing images from the Bible.
(4) Eggenburg Charnel, Austria
Charnel houses sound unpleasant but they performed a vital function for oversubscribed graveyards. Exhuming bodies after a few years in the grave freed up space to bury new people. The remains ended up in charnel houses. Some charnel houses also contained those bones unearthed during the grave-digging process.
Others become an artistic display, like the Eggenburg Charnel in Austria. Some records name the site in 1299, but most of the pit dates to 1405. The simple, round pit contains almost 6000 people. The symmetrical design turns the bones into a work of art.
A protective window covers the site to protect the fragile remains.
(5) Brno Ossuary, Czech Republic
Archaeological digs accompany any construction work in Brno. One excavation in 2001 under St. Jacob’s Square revealed 50,000 skeletons in a single ossuary. Bones ended up in the crypt 10-12 years after burial in the churchyard above.
Joseph II ordered the closure of the churchyard in 1784 to improve public health. The old headstones became paving stones covering the ossuary.
The vast number of remains makes Brno the second largest European ossuary after the Paris Catacombs. Scientists later examined the bones. They provided a record of medieval diseases, including cholera and plague.
Only renovating the crypt saved the bones from further decomposition. That also saved the ossuary from collapse. The ossuary opened in 2012 but visitors can now tour the crypt from Tuesday to Sunday.
(6) Křtiny Ossuary, Czech Republic
The Křtiny Ossuary lies in a tiny town of just 800 people. According to legend, the first Christians were baptised in the town, situated 20 km northeast of Brno. You can find the ossuary in the basement of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It holds around 1,000 people, compared to Sedlec’s 40,000. Its twelve strange painted skulls make it well worth a visit. Here, a black laurel wreath crowns the skulls. Archaeologists discovered the bones in a walled-in tomb during a 1991 survey.
These mysterious skulls make it the only Czech ossuary to boast painted skulls. Painting skulls is a Western European funerary tradition. It’s one of the quieter ossuaries you need to visit.
(7) Hallstatt Bone House, Austria
Speaking of painted skulls, Hallstatt Bone House in Austria holds 610 of them. It also has over 500 unpainted skulls.
Locals started painting the skulls in the early 18th century. The gravedigger painted ivy or oak wreaths for men, and floral wreaths for women. The families placed the skulls on a shelf with the skeleton below.
Many graveyards feature separate sections for Catholics and Protestants. But the Bone House doesn’t. Both denominations sit alongside each other.
The Catholic church relaxed the ban on cremation in the 1960s. People stopped interring bones in Hallstatt soon after. That said, one skull dates to 1995 since the woman’s last wish was to end up in the charnel house.
(8) Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Iran
They’re not quite an ossuary, but the Towers of Silence prove to be a fascinating place to visit. They’re part of the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial. The Towers allowed people to purify their dead by exposing it to the elements in the desert.
Three rings held the bodies; men on the outside, children on the inside, with women between. Vultures stripped the bodies, and the sun bleached the bones. The bones ended up in ossuaries near the Towers.
The authorities banned the use of the Iranian Towers in the 1970s. City expansion nearby brought them too close to human occupation. But you can still visit them.
You can visit other Towers of Silence in Nukus, Uzbekistan.
(9) Fontanelle Cemetery Caves, Italy
These fascinating caves started life in the 1500s. They acted as an overflow to relieve pressure on crypts and churchyards in Naples.
The population of the Cimitero Fontanelle swelled in 1656 after a plague epidemic. Cholera outbreaks in the 1830s provided more inhabitants. The lack of proper burial rites led many to believe the Fontanelle was haunted.
In 1872, a local priest organized the crowded remains, many of which had no grave markers. The volunteers helping the priest prayed for the dead while they sorted the bones. Some local women talked to the dead, leaving offerings or wishes on scraps of paper inside the skulls.
During World War II, the Fontanelle’s became a bomb shelter. Rumors claim black magic rituals took place in the caves in the postwar years.
The cemetery closed in 1969 and restoration began in 2000. You can visit Fontanelle for free but it’s recommended that you go with a guide to soak up the stories.
(10) Capuchin Monastery Catacombs, Palermo, Sicily
These catacombs on the edge of Palermo contain mummies rather than skeletons. The Capuchin monks started preserving and posing their deceased brothers in 1599. Over the next three centuries, it became ‘the’ place to spend eternity.
The monks extended their small cemetery for the new bodies. They accepted donations from the wealthy to mummify and inter them in the catacombs. Preserved corpses hang on walls and rest on shelves.
The catacombs closed in 1880 but the most famous inhabitant dates to 1920. The two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, nicknamed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, rests in a glass coffin. She appears in Crypt of Bone, where Morgan searches for the Devil’s Bible in the catacombs.
(11) St. Bride’s Crypt, London
Kensal Rise Cemetery and Highgate Cemetery in London include catacombs on their tours, but St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, designed by Christopher Wren, houses its own dark secret.
Excavations in 1953 revealed the remains of thousands of people in the crypt. Many victims of the 1854 cholera epidemic lie among the bones. Sealing off the crypt helped prevent further spread of the disease.
Take a tour to peer into the charnel house to see the bone collections as they were. In the ossuary, neat stacks of boxes contain bones. The deceased have code numbers instead of names now. It’s one of the most accessible ossuaries you need to visit.
(12) Capela de Ossos Bone Chapel, Portugal
Humans don’t often encounter bones. In earlier times, these encounters provided the opportunity for a memento mori. It means ‘remember you will die’.
Find one such memento mori over the door into the Capela de Ossos chapel in Evora. It reads, “We, the bones that are here await yours”.
While bones decorate Sedlec, here the bones become the building itself. Mortar holds together femurs to form the walls. Skulls peer out at regular intervals, turning the interior into a work of art. The bones belonged to the 1,245 monks disturbed by building work for the chapel.
The Capela dos Ossos lies to the right of the Igreja do Carmo church main entrance. It’s open daily and there’s a small entry fee of €2 per adult.
(13) Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa, Cambodia
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered 1.7 million people. Many of them ended up in mass graves like the one at Choeung Ek.
The memorial in Phnom Penh remembers those 1.7 million people. The authorities chose the site after finding the remains of around 17,000 people there. The skulls of 5,000 people comprise the memorial. There are also grave pits at the site, some still containing human bones.
The Cambodian government encourages visitors to ensure no one forgets the brutal regime. It’s one of the more powerful ossuaries you need to visit but make sure you’re respectful if you go.
(14) Douaumont Ossuary, France
This French ossuary is also a memorial, this time to the war dead of the First World War. Around 230,000 men died during the battle of Verdun. This building served the cemetery opposite and opened in 1932.
Here, the bones lie in heaps, not the neat stacks of church ossuaries. It helps show how many died during the battle. You can walk among the piles, divided according to the area where they were found. Soldier’s names are engraved on bricks, though many of the soldiers remain nameless.
The Douaumont Ossuary is open all year except January.
(15) St. Michan’s Church, Ireland
Not all crypts contain bones. The crypt at St. Michan’s church in central Dublin contains mummies. The limestone walls and cool atmosphere led to the natural preservation of corpses.
Not all the coffins survived, and you can see some of the mummies on the 30-minute tour. Four of them earned nicknames; ‘The Nun’, ‘The Thief’, ‘The Unknown’ and ‘The Crusader’.
If that’s not enough to justify a visit, Bram Stoker once visited the church. Composer Handel apparently wrote his Messiah oratorio on its organ.
Any of these crypts, catacombs and ossuaries provide powerful experiences for visitors. Awe-inspiring, fascinating, and moving, you’ll learn about humanity in these bone houses.
Be respectful and who knows whose voice you might hear, whispering from the walls?
Want to read a thriller that features a number of these ossuaries? Check out Crypt of Bone.