Crypts And 'Bone Churches' Around The World That Are Open For Visitors

Diverse rituals and mourning practices for the deceased testify to the myriad ways people contend with their own mortality. Found in countries with strong Catholic traditions, ossuaries are chambers where bones from those who have passed are displayed or held. "Os" is the Latin word for bone, and most ossuaries were built in medieval Europe or parts of the world occupied by European empires. 

Ranging from underground crypts to elaborately decorated churches, the ossuaries on this list will satisfy anyone's morbid curiosity.

Photo: Dale Cruse / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

  • Sedlec Ossuary In Kutná Hora, Czech Republic 

    This 15th-century Gothic church was predated by a sacred cemetery supposedly blessed with Israeli soil brought over by an abbot. Due to the plague and the Crusades, some 40,000 cadavers were submerged in the cemetery beginning in the 14th century. When construction began on the church, thousands of remains were moved to the ossuary beneath the structure, where they stayed until the late 1800s.

    In 1870, a carpenter named Francis Rint was hired to decorate the inside of the church with the thousands of bones preserved in the ossuary. His process involved bleaching and carving the bones, which were then manipulated into extravagant sculptures, crosses, and arches. Rint's masterpiece is the intricate chandelier that is said to include every bone from the human body.

  • Dingolfing Ossuary In Dingolfing, Germany

    The Schuster Chapel in Dingolfing, Germany, houses a spooky secret: a collection of hand-painted skulls. Built in the 18th century, the quaint chapel, known in German as Schusterkapelle, is home to more than 60 skulls. The skulls are arranged in a beautiful wooden display case decorated with ominous murals depicting the cycle of life and death.

    The skulls themselves are marked with symbols, calligraphy, and dates from the 19th century. The story behind the skulls, or whom they belong to, is not clear, shrouding the ossuary in mystery. It's all the more reason to visit.

  • Fontanelle Cemetery In Naples, Italy 

    Underneath the city of Naples exists a vast ossuary known as "The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead." This 16th-century cave is filled with the bones of departed people whose remains could not fit into overcrowded church cemeteries in the area. The remains are referred to as "little wretches," and pious folks flock from all over the world to pay their respects to the unknown skeletons and skeletal fragments.

    Most of the remains date back to plague times, when at least 150,000 Neapolitans expired. It wasn't until 1872 that the ossuary was catalogued and organized by Father Gaetano Barbati, propelling a tradition of ritualistic care that persists to this day.

  • St. Mary Of Eulogies And The Dead In Rome, Italy 

    Beneath the church of St. Mary of Eulogies and the Dead in the center of Rome lies the Capuchin Crypt. The crypt contains the bones and ossified remains of some 4,000 Capuchin friars, arranged along every surface - ceilings included - as a sort of exhibition honoring the Catholic order. 

    The Capuchins were a reformist group established in 1520 by Matteo Bassi, who claimed the Franciscan order moved too far away from its modest origins. Despite this, the Capuchins relied on donations from wealthy families to build the church in the next century. The crypt itself, accessible through the church's museum, contains five rooms and a chapel. While the chapel has no bones, the rest of the rooms are filled with florid and bizarre bone sculptures and patterns. It's the perfect place for someone to reflect on their temporality.

  • Perhaps the most well-known crypt on this list, the underground Paris Catacombs span nearly a mile and run five stories deep. It was named in homage to the Roman Catacombs, when Parisian officials decided to transfer skeletons to the former site of a quarry to curb a public health issue arising from overcrowded cemeteries. Many church cemeteries were excavated starting in the late 18th century, and the bones of late individuals were sent to the underground lair.

    Beginning in 1809, the catacombs were opened to the public due to the work of Inspector Héricart de Thury. The loosely piled bones were organized along the crypt walls, skulls alternating between different fragments. Throughout the catacombs, visitors can find plaques filled with poetry and historical information about the formation of this iconic Paris monument.

  • St. Leonard's Church Basement Ossuary In Hythe, England

    How did the skeletal remains of some 4,000 people end up in the basement of St. Leonard's Church? No one knows for sure, but theories abound. From Vikings to plague casualties to soldiers, people throughout history have surmised why the church, dating back to the early Middle Ages, became an ossuary. Contemporary research points to the remains being of Roman descent.

    Regardless of the bones' origins, the strategic placement of these skeletal remains - including 2,000 skulls - is a sight worth seeing. The skulls themselves are noted for possessing medical or dental anomalies. Some have even been subject to trepanning, an antiquated surgical technique that involves drilling a hole into a skull to relieve pressure on the brain.