Doom & Dust: 10 Creepy Crypts, Catacombs and Charnel Houses

kensal-green-cemetery-catacombs (Image: Hassan C, cc-nd-4.0)

The way that we approach death and the unknown as a society changes rapidly according to technology, poverty, political stability and religious belief. Nowhere is this more evident than in the often forgotten underground crypts, catacombs and charnel houses hidden in some of the most ordinary and extraordinary places on earth. From deeply personal family crypts and mausoleums to massive burial sites, such constructions are tantalisingly mysterious and irresistible for those in search of less conventional sightseeing. These eerie and decaying monuments to death and the afterlife are windows into another time which enchant, mystify and spook visitors in equal measure. Here are some of the most serene, scary and above all intriguing resting places from all over the globe.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt


st-caterine's-monastery-charnel-house-mount-sinai-ossuary (Images: Berthold Werner; Testus; cc-sa-3.0)

St. Catherine’s Monastery, also known as The Monastery of the Transfiguration, is a place of major religious and historical significance, certainly worth visiting, but beneath the monastery proper there is a bizarre and macabre charnel house that was the direct result of the harsh environment surrounding it. In the 6th century AD the Byzantine emperor Justinian decreed in no uncertain terms that a monastery was to be built in this inhospitable climate, near the already established chapel of the Burning Bush. The monks of St. Catherine who were disgraced or proved to be difficult were sent to Sinai as penance but found that among the many trials of life in Egypt’s harsh climate, they were unable to bury their dead as the ground was difficult to break. The resulting “house of skulls” fashioned from human remains draws visitors from around the world. Arranged out of necessity rather than decoration, this charnel house is a morbid and gruesome monument to the monks of St. Catherine who fell victim to the hardships of Mount Sinai all those years ago.

Kensal Green Cemetery and Catacombs, England


kensal-green-cemetery-catacombs-3 (Images: Hassan C, cc-nd-4.0)

As a result of the rapidly growing London population and a cholera outbreak in the 1830s, the City of London began a push to move burials outside the city limits by establishing the famously dubbed “Magnificent Seven” burial sites. One of the most intriguing and strangely beautiful of these garden style cemeteries is the Kensal Green site. In addition to lavish Victorian monuments and tombs, it also features mysterious and eerie catacombs. Damaged after World War Two, they took on a more overgrown and spooky appearance, their once grand and romantic sculptures and mausoleums decaying and crumbling. There has been a great effort of late to restore the Kensal Green Cemetery but the passage of time still weighs heavily on this the last resting place of literary giants William Makepeace Thackery and Anthony Trollope, not to mention the creator of the Difference Engine Charles Babbage.

Stephansdom Crypt, Austria

Stephansdom-Crypt-Vienna (Image: Rene Rivers, cc-nc-nd-4.0)

Beneath the sombre and pious majesty of St. Stephen’s cathedral lies a dark and macabre secret that few of the thousands of tourists who flock there every year decide to explore. The Stephansdom Crypt is home to the skeletal remains of over 11,000 people and was used as a final resting place for the Archbishop of Vienna Franz Cardinal Kˆnig as recently as 2004. The volume of bodies in the main part of the crypt is largely attributed to the relocation of burial services to the pit below the church during the bubonic plague outbreak in 1735. A separate section in the crypt is reserved for jars containing the preserved innards of royalty. The Hapsburg royalty’s hearts, intestines and even the stomach of Queen Maria Teresa can be found here.

The Paris Catacombs, France




paris-catacombs-ossuaries-14 (Images: Marcelo BragaTommie Hansen; cc-4.0Vlastula, cc-sa-3.0Alex Hansford, nc-sa-4.0)

Perhaps the second most famous and visually stunning catacombs in the world, these underground chambers are relatively easy to access. The subterranean labyrinth was at the result of France’s early limestone mining but in the 18th century these tunnels took on a whole new role. The Parisian cemeteries were overcrowded so the solution the government of the day came up with was to reinforce and repurpose these unstable limestone mine shafts, turning them into an underground burial site. The bone-lined walls of the Paris Catacombs are nothing short of creepy and for those intent on subverting the sanctioned tourist walks will discover an amazing and almost terrifying maze of caverns and skeletal remain, interrupted by the occasional piece of elaborate modern street art, to be found. Be warned, though, the majority of the catacombs are strictly off-limits to the public and their known entrances are regularly patrolled.

The Rome Catacombs, Italy


rome-catacombs-2 (Images: Dnalor 01, cc-sa-3.0; FlickreviewR, cc-4.0)

Well documented and well protected, Rome is very proud of its heritage and that pride extends to its series of catacombs that dot the city. Rome is home to some of the largest and oldest catacombs in the world. But as these Christian catacombs are the property of the Catholic Church, explorers of the less well known, non-tourist areas of the catacombs must have express permission from the Vatican. Permission that is not granted often, which explains why there have been few new expeditions into Rome’s underworld in recent years. The prospect of lost catacombs and even those not routinely visited tantalises urban explorers as the network of tunnels is far reaching, and who knows what mysteries they could hold? The tunnels that are open to tourists, however, are equally interesting with some being established as early as the 1st century AD.

The Catacombs of St. Paul and St Agatha, Malta

St paul's Catacombs Rabat Malta

St paul's Catacombs Rabat Malta-2

St paul's Catacombs Rabat Malta-3 (Images: Adam Burt (top, middle), cc-nd-4.0; Azylber, cc-sa-3.0)

These may be amongst the most interesting and spooky catacombs in the world, with St Agatha being the burial site for over 500 people in Roman times, including many children. Most of St Agatha’s tombs were designed to inter two bodies at a time and people regardless of their religion were buried there. St Paul’s Parish is said to be the place where the saint himself supposedly stayed during his time on Malta in 60 AD and the catacombs are accessible from the church above. Explorers can make their way through the tombs, admire the frescos and marvel at the different types of burials afforded to different classes during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The Agape table is another point of interest in the Maltese catacombs as it’s believed to have been intrinsic to the funeral rituals of the time.

Heidelberg Thingplatz, Germany

Heidelberg-Thingplatz (Images: Opacity)

This epic, yet bizarre site contains layers of long lost history that stretch from the Roman occupation to the extremist days of the Third Reich. Positioned on what was known as the Holy Mountain, burial sites dot the hillside, sloping down from the former site of the Roman Temple of Mercury. These tombs and burial places have been all but swept up by the tides of more recent history. The Nazis ‘Thing’ movement was a plan to construct over 1,200 open air quasi-religious public gathering spaces, and the Heidelberg Thingplatz is one of the remaining structures of the 40 that were built. This strangely ancient-looking modern amphitheatre all but obscures the burial sites but keen explorers will be able to find them.

Father de Coma Alignment, France


Father-de-Coma-Alignment-Crypt-2 (Images: Andrew Gough (The Heretic Magazine) reproduced with permission)

Born in 1822 the illusive Father Louis de Coma is part of a bizarre passage in the Catholic Church’s history and his life is shrouded in mystery. But remnants of his eerie religious architectural feats can still be found on and surrounding what was once the De Coma family home. In addition to these strange devotional monuments, crypts and statues, located both above and below ground, the de Coma family crypt is another surreal and devoutly religious spectacle. One of the mysteries surrounding this series of religious structures is that the priest himself opted to be buried away from the family tomb on unhallowed ground, atop a much older grave, the identity of its inhabitant unknown. The story of de Coma is one of political and religious intrigue and of strange behaviour that remains compelling to this day.

Capuchin Crypt, Palermo, Italy



capuchin-crypt-palermo-3 (Images: Giuseppe Incorpora; Sibeaster (middle, bottom); public domain)

This creepy crypt came into being when the Capuchin Monastery on the outskirts of Palermo ran out of room in their church burial grounds. Some 8,000 skeletal remains of Capuchin parishioners lie, or in some cases stand in five adjoining chambers throughout the cold basement of the Capuchin Monastery. Friars, local dignitaries and even children have been interred in this strange burial site since 1599, their skeletal or mummified remains plain for all to see. Open to the public, the Capuchin Crypt is made even more eerie by the pious and religiously significant positions that many skeletons have been arranged in. It’s as if the crypt’s bodies were put on display rather than laid to rest. Some even have intact clothing, creating a rather disturbing and otherworldly spectacle, while all around anonymous skulls and other bones adorn the walls.

Laeken Crypt, Belgium


Laeken-Crypt-Belgium-2 (Images: P.J.L Laurens, cc-sa-3.0; Archives of the Dead, cc-sa-4.0)

The Belgian capital Brussels is home to one of the world’s most beautiful yet eerie abandoned crypts. Twenty years of decline have not been kind to this burial site, the use of dates back to the 1870s. No gore or wall to wall skeletons here. This organised vault boasts hundreds of hermitically sealed niches with decorative inscriptions and beautiful stone work. Now awaiting restoration, the ornate and peaceful crypt grew with the community, through a series of annexes and extensions until it fell into disrepair in the late 1990s. Hopefully the restoration will retain the somber beauty of this hidden urban gem.

Keep reading – 8 Haunting Cemeteries and Necropolises


About the author: Morgan Pinder



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