10 Crypts, Catacombs, and Ossuaries You Can Visit

Bones and skulls of friars arranged ornately in the Capuchin Crypt in Italy
The skeletal remains of friars are ornately displayed in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome.

Richard Ross / Getty Images

Cemeteries often provoke a sense of the deceased that is somewhat removed from the visitor, but crypts, catacombs, and ossuaries show the stark reality of death in the visceral form of skulls and bones. Like the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, many such places were constructed by religious orders in reverence of those passed. Others, like the famous Catacombs in Paris, were built strictly out of necessity. Regardless of the intention behind them, these houses of the dead still exist today and many are open to visitors.

Inspiring awe throughout the centuries, here are 10 crypts, catacombs, and ossuaries that you can visit.

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Sedlec Ossuary

Bones and skulls elaborately decorate the ceiling of Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic

Mikhail Markovskiy / Shutterstock

In a small chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the Czech Republic are the human remains of more than 40,000 people. The Sedlec Ossuary, nicknamed the Church of Bones, isn’t quite as sinister as it seems, however. In 1278 the abbot of the Sedlec Cistercian Monastery was sent to Jerusalem by the King of Bohemia. Upon his return, he spread soil he brought from the Holy Land about the grounds of the cemetery. The story goes that people from near and far wished to be buried at the cemetery because of this holy soil, and so the bones amassed. Since the 19th century, the bones have been arranged in a variety of stylistic patterns and forms throughout the chapel, including chandeliers, sculptures, and a coat of arms.

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Skull Tower

Skulls embedded within the wall of Skull Tower in Nis, Siberia

Maxim Bonte / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the town of Niš, Serbia stands a stone wall with human skulls embedded throughout it, known appropriately as Skull Tower. The structure dates back to 1809, when Serbian revolutionaries lost the Battle of Čegar to the Ottoman Empire. Upon their victory, the Ottoman forces built a 15-foot-tall tower out of stones and skulls of the Serbian dead as a warning to other Serbian rebels. When the Ottomans eventually left the region in the late 19th century, locals built a chapel around what remained of the tower. Today, tens of thousands of tourists visit Skull Tower every year.

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Skull Chapel

Skulls and crossbones form the wall and ceiling of the Chapel of Skulls

Merlin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

A small chapel in Kudowa, Poland houses the skeletal remains of thousands of people arranged along the interior walls, floor, and ceiling of the building. Known as Skull Chapel, or Kaplica Czaszek, the sanctuary was constructed from 1776 to 1794 by local priest Václav Tomášek, who was inspired to build it after a trip to a Roman cemetery. Seeking to honor those buried in mass graves following the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War and various epidemics, the priest, along with a local gravedigger, set about finding, cleaning, and arranging the bones throughout the chapel. Skull Chapel is now a tourist site and features the skulls of its builders within the altar.

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Capuchin Crypt

A display of skulls adorn the walls of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome

-JvL- / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Underneath Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins church in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt is composed of five small chapels filled with the bones of roughly 4,000 friars. Meant to serve as a place of prayer and reflection, Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered in 1631 that the graves of Capuchin friars be exhumed and the remains relocated to the chapels beneath the newly-built church. The friars arranged the remains of their brethren in ornate fashion, with some skulls cloaked in traditional frock along the chapel walls. Capuchin Crypt is open to the public for daily tours.

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Capela dos Ossos

An elaborate display of bones and skulls form the walls of Capela dos Ossos in Peru

Saiko3p / Shutterstock

To the side of the Church of St. Francis in Évora, Portugal, there is a chapel constructed of skulls and the bones of 5,000 people. Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, was built by Franciscan monks in the 16th century with human remains exhumed from the city’s cemetery. The walls within the chapel are covered in bones from floor to ceiling, and, on one wall, there hang the entire skeletal remains of a person. Along the roof of the chapel are the words, “Better is the day of death than the day of birth.” Capela dos Ossos receives visitors daily for the price of a small entrance fee.

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Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Mummies displayed along a wall in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo Italy

Juan Antonio Segal / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Capuchin Catacombs, in the southern Italian town of Palermo, house the human remains of some 8,000 dead and the mummified bodies of over 1,200 people. Built in the 16th century, the Capuchin Catacombs originally served as a resting place for exhumed bodies of Capuchin monks. In 1599, the body of the recently passed monk Silvestro de Gubbio was dried and mummified for display within the catacombs. Over the centuries, monks and laypeople were entombed in a similar fashion until the practice halted in the 1920s. Today, iron bars encase many of the mummies on display to discourage tourists from taking photos with the dead.

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Catacombs of Paris

A room lined with bones in the Catacombs of Paris

stockcam / Getty Images

Underneath the streets of Paris are, perhaps, the most famous collection of human skulls and bones in the world. The Catacombs were established in 1786 due to the overflow of several Parisian cemeteries. Each night, wagons would transfer the skeletal remains from the crowded cemeteries into a vast network of tunnels beneath the city. Eventually, the remains of 6 million people, with more than 2 million coming from the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, were placed within the Catacombs. Today, nearly half a million people visit the Catacombs each year.

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Brno Ossuary

A wall made of human skulls and bones along a hallway in Brno Ossuary

Dage - Looking for Europe / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Brno Ossuary in Brno, Czech Republic can be found beneath the Church of St. James in the historical center of the city. In the 17th century, when local graveyards became full, the remains buried there were exhumed and then moved into the ossuary below to make room for the recently deceased. Over the years, the crypt was slowly forgotten as the churchyard wall was torn down and the grounds were paved with crumbling headstones from the cemetery, until the ossuary was rediscovered in 2001. Housing more than 50,000 skeletons, the ossuary is available for tours year-round.

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Choeung Ek

The stupa monument to the deceased at Choeung Ek in Cambodia

Michael Harris / Eye Em / Getty Images

The Khmer Rouge—the ruling party of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979—killed and buried over 1 million people during their reign in sites known as The Killing Fields. The most well known of these is Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, where nearly 9,000 bodies were found in mass graves following the Khmer Rouge’s demise. Today, those who perished at Choeung Ek are memorialized with a Buddhist house of meditation known as a stupa. Inside the glass walls of the stupa monument are the skulls of 5,000 dead. Visitors are welcome to tour the monument and pay their respects to the deceased.

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Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Bones and skulls laid out in an intricate design at Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Holger Leue / Getty Images

Beneath the Monastery of San Francisco in the heart of Lima, Peru lie the skeletal remains of 25,000 people. The Spanish Baroque monastery was built in the mid-16th century, and the catacombs underneath it served as a burial ground until a cemetery was built nearby in 1808. The catacombs were forgotten for over a century until they were rediscovered in 1943. Visitors to the monastery today can view the skulls and bones of the dead, which are laid out in intricate geometric patterns.