Necro tourism has been around for centuries in one form or another. On the lighter side, travelers might visit the graves or memorials for celebrated authors or musicians (think London’s historic Westminster Abbey, the final resting place for Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and a number of British Prime Ministers, or famed Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where both Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried.) Genealogists might take gravestone rubbings at cemeteries, those interested in the ornate crypts and mausoleums might visit the well-known cemeteries of New Orleans, or literary fans might visit the childhood home of their favorite author(s).
Many tourists might find the idea of visiting such places macabre. Confronting our own mortality can cause anxiety and fear and a rush of emotions the modern world, with its sanitized view of death, is ill-equipped to deal with, but there’s definitely something to be said for celebrating the lives of those who came before us, famous or not.
For those wanderers who are less squeamish and more fascinated by what comes after life, these six places might be right up your street.
Italy’s Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
It was out of necessity that the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo came into being. By the 16th century, there was no more room in the Capuchin monastery’s original cemetery and other plans had to be made for the burial of the monastery’s inhabitants, which led to the use of the catacombs. The first mummified monk, Silvestro of Gubbio, was interred in 1599, the last (Brother Riccardo) in 1871, but the catacombs weren’t used only for the friars; men, woman, and children are buried there, from the “regular Joe” (Rosalie Lombardo, one of the last to be interred in the 1920s) to the professional (Salvatore Manzella, surgeon) and the famous (Colonel Enea DiGuiliano (dressed in full French Bourbon uniform.)
All-in-all, the catacombs are the final resting place for around 8,000 mummies.
Slideshow of the Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo, Sicily
Austria's Skull Ossuary
In picturesque Hallstatt, Austria, travelers will find what is called the Karner or Beinhaus (Charnel House or Bone House, respectively) beneath the Church of Saint Michael, a Catholic church that’s been in existence as far back as the 12th century. What’s interesting about the estimated 700 skulls housed at the Beinhaus is that they’ve been painted or decorated in some way. Also of interest is that there is extensive paperwork (some dating back to the 1600s) to accompany the vast majority of them, providing a researchable timeline for them. Because they skulls can be matched to paperwork, much can be learned in the way of familial relationships and genetic research.
Slideshow of Halstatt Bone Chapel
Portugal's Capela dos Ossos
Next to the Church of St. Francis in Evora, Portual, lies a modest chapel known as the Chapel of Bones, named so because of the skeletal decorations on its walls and pillars. Constructed in the 1500s by a Franscican monk who envisioned the space as a means for introspection about the fleeting nature of life, the chapel is home to skeletal remains of approximately 5,000 monks.
In the event the fleeting nature of life theme isn’t obvious, visitors are met with a cautionary greeting: Nos ossos que aqui estamos pleos vossos esperamos, which translates to, “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” (Wikipedia)
Slideshow Capela dos Ossos
Rome's Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
At Via Venete in Rome is the Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins church, built at the request of Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century. Beneath the church is the famous crypt that houses the skeletal remains of about 4,000 friars, some of which were exhumed and relocated from the friary Via dei Lucchesi, and their bones used to create intricate decorations.
In addition to the transferred skeletons, the five small chapels of the crypt received the remains of the church’s dead, as well as those of indigent Romans, and was used by the Capuchins as a place of prayer and introspection.
Slideshow Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Czech Republic's Sedlec Ossuary
Underneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, lies the Sedlec Ossuary, the origins of which date back to the 13th century, and which houses somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 skeletons, many of which were used to create extravagant ornamentation throughout the small, Roman Catholic chapel. These decorations include a chandelier containing every human bone, and a recreation of the Schwarzenberg coat of arms.
Video Sedlec Ossuary
Learning from the Past
While Necro tourism might be grotesquely named, put in proper perspective it can shed new light on death, giving visitors the chance to reflect on their own mortality and their places in the world-at-large, and provide the opportunity for connections to the past. Embrace your fears, step into the world of death, and see what you discover.