10 Crypts and Catacombs You Can Visit

Bones and skulls on an underground wall
Photo: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Although ossuaries, catacombs and crypts — spaces where human bones are displayed in piles or patterns — seem strange and spooky by today’s societal norms, they were not always viewed that way. In the past, both Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions displayed and cared for the bones of the dead as a way to honor and remember them. To this day, you can visit such religious sites in Europe.

Other "bone houses" and crypts exist because of large-scale tragedies. These places contain the remains of war casualties, plague victims or people who couldn't afford burial plots. Some visitors come to these bone houses out of curiosity. Others might be drawn by their macabre nature, while the sites may still hold religious significance for a few.

Regardless of the reason that inspires you, here's a collection of bone houses you can see for yourself.

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Sedlec Ossuary: Bones and art

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This Gothic-style church near the city of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic dates back to the 15th century. The exterior looks normal, but the interior is decorated with thousands of human bones. Interestingly, the skeletons are older than the church, which now draws about 200,000 tourists each year with its strange decor. The previous church in Sedlec was a popular burial ground because the head abbot there took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and brought back what he said was sacred earth. Locals chose to be buried in the cemetery because of this connection to the Holy Land.

When the plague struck Europe, the cemetery expanded by more than 30,000 graves. When the church that's currently standing opened in the 1400s, parishioners moved the remains in the cemetery to a crypt under the new worship space, where they stacked them in pyramid-shaped piles. In the late 19th century, the parish hired a local artist and woodcarver to redesign the ossuary. He bleached the bones and arranged them in ornate patterns on the arches and walls. He even signed his name in bone on a wall and built a detailed family crest of the church's main benefactor with bones.

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Skull Tower: A patriotic symbol

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Cele Kula, which means Skull Tower, is in the Serbian town of Nis. While most bone houses date back to the Middle Ages, an Ottoman Empire general made this 15-foot tower, which has 952 skulls of Serbian rebels embedded in it, in the early 1800s. In 1895, local Serbs, who had long since expelled the Ottomans, built a church around the tower.

The story of this tower starts in the early 1800s, when Serb rebels, fearing torture and execution after a military loss, blew up their fortress when Ottoman troops breached it. The Ottoman general, angry that his army units had been killed in the suicide bomb, collected the heads of the Serbians and embedded them in a tower. Instead of instilling fear, the tower became a symbol of patriotism. Over the years, families have removed some of the skulls for burial, but 58 of them remain.

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Kaplica Czaszek: Bone-covered chapel

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The Chapel of Skulls, or Kaplica Czaszek in Polish, is located in Czermna, a district in the town of Kudowa. The parish priest at Saint Bartholomew Church started the chapel interior in the late 1700s with the help of the resident grave digger. When the priest, named Vaclav Tomasek, died, his skull was placed in the chapel as well.

Saint Bartholomew's also has an underground area with as many as 20,000 skeletons, but the church itself has an above-ground section with ornate bone and skull patterns on the walls and ceilings. Historians think the remains mostly came from wars fought in the 17th and 18th centuries and from disease outbreaks.

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Capuchin Crypt of Rome: Dressed-up skeletons

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The Capuchin Crypt in Rome inspired several other ossuaries around Europe. The crypt is underneath the Church of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins (Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini) in the center of Rome. Each of the six chapels within the space has a different name. Visitors can spend time in rooms such as the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones, and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, which features skeletons dressed in the brown hooded robes of the Capuchin monastic order.

The bones here are the remains of Capuchin monks. When the group moved to the church in Rome, they brought the remains of deceased monks from past headquarters with them and placed them in the crypt. The bodies of newly deceased monks were buried first, exhumed a few decades later and added to the collection in the crypts. This practice went on until 1870.

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Capela dos Ossos: A meditation on mortality

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A Franciscan monk built this Evora, Portugal, crypt in the 16th century. At that time, many in the Catholic tradition were teaching about the impermanence of life, and the motivation for this Portuguese bone house seems to have been for people to contemplate mortality. There's a sign above the door that reads "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos" — translation: "We bones that here are, for yours await." A later priest wrote a poem with a similar message that's painted inside the crypt.

Skulls and bones are embedded in the walls of Capela dos Ossos and attached to the ceiling in patterns, much like other similar sites in the region. A more macabre feature here is two complete skeletons, one and adult and one a child, suspended from a wall.

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Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo: Social orders

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The Franciscan monks of the Capuchin order also made crypts outside of Rome. In Palermo, Sicily, they were responsible for catacombs that might seem strange to modern sensibilities. The site includes entire mummified corpses laid out or even posed. Many of the skeletons are clothed (some people had wills that included instructions to occasionally change their outfits). One of the last to be interred in the crypt was a young girl named Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia. She was so skillfully embalmed that she looks almost the same today as she did when she was laid to rest a century ago.

This Sicilian site offers insight into the past, including the way people dealt with mortality, and the stark social hierarchy that existed in previous eras. The crypt has different sections. Men and women were kept in separate places, and there's a special section for those who were thought to be virgins when they died. Monks and priests were buried separately, and wealthy professionals were given their own section as well.

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Catacombes de Paris: 200 miles of bones

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The largest known collection of human bones is under the streets of Paris. The maze of bones known as the Catacombes de Paris holds the remains of 6 million people. In the 18th century, the urban cemeteries of Paris became overcrowded. When the city flooded in 1780, shallow graves couldn't hold the corpses, and some literally floated down the street. The solution to this problem was to place the remains in underground tunnels left over from limestone mines used in the Middle Ages.

The bone-lined labyrinth opened to the public in the late 19th century, and the site is now managed by Paris Musées, an organization that runs 14 museums and historic sites in the French capital. When you tour the catacombs, you won't see all 6 million "residents." The tourist section covers more than a mile — offering a good snapshot of the catacombs — but the tunnels stretch for more than 200 miles.

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Brno Ossuary: A new discovery

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This ossuary was hidden for centuries under the historic old town in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic. Archaeologists were surprised to discover the remains, which were in tunnels under Saint James Church, in 2001. The hypothesis is that the bones of some 50,000 people were moved from a cemetery to make room for newer graves during the 17th and 18th centuries. The number of remains makes this the second-largest ossuary in Europe (after the Catacombs of Paris).

The ossuary opened to the public in 2012 after a complete renovation. The chambers had flooded at some point, and the busy streets above would have eventually caved into the chambers below. Most of the bones are stacked against walls or around the large support beams. The ossuary has tours, which take about 30 minutes. Because of the limited number of spaces in each tour, most travel guides recommend booking in advance.

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Monastery of San Francisco Catacombs

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In the early 1800s, authorities in Lima, Peru, began building cemeteries outside of the city. Before that, Lima's deceased had been placed in crypts underneath churches. According to historians, when the crypt at San Francisco monastery became overcrowded, the monks soaked newly deceased bodies in quicklime until only the skeletons remained.

Today, you can see the bones of more than 75,000 people in the pit-like ossuaries under San Francisco. The remains are arranged in patterns. Aside from the crypts, legend has it that the basement under the church has tunnels that monks used when the Spanish Inquisition came to South America.

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Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa: Recent atrocities

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Not every collection of skeletons points to burial practices from long ago. The Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa in Cambodia has 5,000 skulls that serve as a memorial for the 1.7 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year reign in the 1970s. The site remains open, and the current government encourages people to visit so they can see evidence of the violent history for themselves.

The stupa is at Choeung Ek, the site of mass executions between 1975 and 1979. This place is often referred to as "the Killing Fields." The skulls here come from victims, and visitors are also confronted with mass graves where others are still buried. Phnom Penh hired a private company to develop the memorial site with the stipulation that they not remove or obscure the remains.