On outer edges of the city of Palermo, in the basement of an old monastery, lies over 8,000 preserved bodies. The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo date back to the 16th century when its monks learned that the subterranean gallery possessed a natural preservative that helped mummify the dead. The bodies are from people of wealthy or holy social standing and are presented clothed in their Sunday best. The must see is a little girl named Rosalia, whose body is so well preserved that she is nicknamed Sleeping Beauty.
Also known as the ‘Church of Bones’, The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic. A one hour train ride from Prague, the church holds 40,000 skeletons whose bones are skilfully arranged to form chandeliers, garlands and other decorative features. The arrangements were created by a local woodcarver named František Rint, who in 1870 was employed for the job and whose signature you can find, of course, in bone – a truly artistic manifestation of the macabre.
Also known as the ‘Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre’, the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is an old Mayan burial site home to the skeletons of people who were given to Mayan gods as ritual sacrifice. The caves are a recent discovery, having only been found in 1989. They can only be accessed by swimming, but the effort is worth it as there are skeletons and Mayan pottery that remain almost untouched. A must see is the skeleton of an adolescent girl nicknamed ‘The Crystal Maiden’, who sparkles thanks to the calcification of her bones.
Translating into English as The Chapel of Bones, this eerie monument makes you feel like you are constantly being watched. The interior of the chapel is covered in an estimated 5,000 human skulls, dug up from the cemeteries in the 16th century when (you guessed it), there was little room left in the cemeteries. A monk at the time decided to use the bones creatively, and the skulls serve as a ‘memento mori’ for visitors – with an encouraging phrase over its entrance that translates to “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” Sinister stuff.
Translating into English as the museum of the mummies, El Museo de las Momias is a testament to Mexico’s recognition of death. The museum displays a collection of exactly 111 bodies who were dug up from their graves when the relatives of the bodies couldn’t pay the ‘grave tax’ – an initiative that was started to make more room for bodies during a cholera outbreak in 1865. When the bodies were extracted experts found that because of the dryness of the soil, they were naturally mummified – but it wasn’t until 1980 that it officially became a museum.
The Skull Chapel in Poland houses the bones of people who died during the Thirty Years and the Silesian Wars, as well as cholera outbreaks. A Czech priest named Vaclav Tomasek and local grave digger called J. Langer arranged the 3,000 skulls and bones in the chapel. It took them years to complete the project, finally finishing in 1804. Particular arrangements are laid out for special viewing, including skulls with bullet holes, syphilis and the skull of a giant. But the real surprise? There are 21,000 additional remains hidden beneath a trapdoor.
Underneath the romantic city of Paris lies a huge network of subterranean tunnels and caves with an unseemly history. The tunnels were transformed into burial grounds in the latter part of the 18th century when mass cemeteries began overflowing. The Paris catacombs has been known as the world’s largest grave for its sheer number of inhabitants, and stretches over 300 kilometres. Although only a small part of the catacombs is open to the general public, there are many secret entrances where adventurers – named Cataphiles – have explored and used for a number of purposes, even hosting secret parties.
Located in the northern part of the Philippines, the Kabayan Mummy Caves were reportedly built from 2000 BC through to the 16th century. The mummies are said to have been from the Ibaloi tribes, who practiced embalming rituals for thousands of years. They are also known as the ‘Fire Mummies’, because the Ibaloi tribes would use a smoking process to preserve the bodies of the deceased. The site was declared by Monument Watch as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world, and is also listed as a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines.
Just outside the village of Dargavs in north Ossetia, set in a mountain ridge, lies a necropolis called ‘The City of the Dead’. The ancient tombs, built above ground, belonged to people who lived in the valley and who buried their loved ones there. The reasons for doing so are unknown, but each crypt still houses the skeletons, clothing and possessions of the people put there. There is folklore that during plagues, people who had no one left to bury them would crawl into their family crypts and await their own death.
Truly the darkest tourism site of them all – the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre is a monument of horror, with a history that stretches back only a short while. Containing the mummified bodies of the 45,000 people killed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the people, said to be refugees, fled to the site (formerly Murambi Technical School) for safety, but were found and killed. The bodies have been mummified with lime and left in the positions they were killed in. It is one of six genocide museums in Rwanda.