If you’ve ever felt a touch uneasy wandering through your local cemetery the places featured in this article should provide some much needed perspective.
The Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, Italy
About 400 years ago, the monks of the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily, ran out of space in their cemetery, so decided to excavate the crypts below their church. The first person interred in the newly created catacombs was a monk called Silvestro, who for reasons not entirely clear was mummified. This sparked a tradition and over the next 300 years up to 8,000 people were entombed in a similar manner. Most corpses were dressed in their Sunday best and wired upright against the walls, a position they remain in to this day. Relatives would visit frequently to pray for and help maintain the deceased, which included changing their clothes. Some bodies have completely decayed whereas others are so remarkably well preserved they appear to be merely sleeping.
The SS America, Canary Islands, Spain
This magnificent vessel was built in America in 1939 and served variously as a cruise liner and US Navy ship for half a century. At the time of its construction the SS America was the pride of the US maritime industry, a pinnacle of ship design, but inevitably as the years passed the competition from newer and faster ships led to its demise, and it was eventually sold to a Thai company which planned to renovate it into a floating hotel off the coast of Phuket. However, while being towed from Greece, the SS America was caught up in a thunderstorm, which eventually led to it being wrecked off the coast of Fuerteventura. Never salvaged, the remains, relentlessly pounded by the Atlantic surf, make for an incredibly eerie sight.
City of the Dead, Ossetia, Russia
At first glance this jumble of buildings on a hillside in a deeply remote part of western Russia looks like a rather scenic village, but closer inspection reveals something slightly more macabre. Each of the buildings is actually a tomb containing members of an Ossetian family, complete with clothes and other personal possessions. If you’re sceptical you can have a look through the windows at the clearly visible skeletons. According to local historians, when a plague swept through the area, people who lost entire families would go and sit in their family crypt to await their own imminent deaths, as they knew there would be no one around to bury them. The tombs are only accessible via a three hour drive from the village of Dargavs, which is now the nearest (living) settlement.
Maunsell Forts, Thames Estuary, UK
These rusted, dilapidated, abandoned forts are eerie remnants of the Second World War, when London was at the mercy of German air raids and sea blockades. They were created to deter the above, and once the war was over they fell into disuse. Apart from their military history, they’re also remembered for being used for pirate radio broadcasts in the 1960s.
Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic
Only recently discovered, this ghoulish crypt beneath the Holy Cross Church in Brno is home to 24 former monks and churchgoers, who were entombed hundreds of years ago. Each of their heads is propped up by a pillow of bricks and in their folded arms they all clutch an ancient rosary. The mummification of the corpses was purely accidental, down to air ducts and the geological composition of the soil on which they rest.
This town in northern Ukraine, just shy of the Belarus border, has the unfortunate distinction of being the site of the worst peacetime nuclear disaster the world has ever known. Back on 26 April 1986, when inspectors at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were cocking eyebrows at an atomic reactor which was shuddering and spluttering in a most disconcerting manner, the town had a 50,000 population. 24 hours later every last person had left – sharpish. Pripyat is now one of the spookiest – not to mention most dangerous – ghost towns in the world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. You can take a tour there – just don’t hang around too long; the radiation levels are still dubious.
Skull Chapel, Czermna, Poland
This extraordinary arrangement of bones is the work of parish priest Vaclav Tomasek, who resided in the town of Czermna in the eighteenth century. Along with a local gravedigger, he took it upon himself to excavate a series of mass graves for people who had died during various wars and epidemics and create, well, this. Everyone needs a hobby. The main chapel is made up of the remains of about 3,000 people, though the remains of 21,000 people lurk in a crypt below. The priest claimed his work acted as a reminder of the frailty of human existence and the salvation available should we follow the correct path. His and his co-worker’s remains were added to the display when the time came.
Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania, the mountainous region of central Romania, has become practically synonymous with vampires, which is almost entirely due to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While Stoker’s creation was obviously fictional, he was inspired by actual history, particularly that of the House of Draculesti, which ruled Transylvania many hundreds of years ago. One of their number, Vlad III, was exceptionally barbaric and tales of his cruelty spread across Europe. On one occasion, to deter an invading army he impaled 20,000 of his own people and positioned them around his capital of Targoviste. It worked.
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Thought to contain the remains of up to 70,000 people, the creep show that is the Sedlec Ossuary was created in 1870 by a local woodcarver called Frantisek Rindt. The bones had been exhumed more than 300 years previously when the current church was being constructed and were taken from a mass grave of plague victims who had died in the 14th century. Rindt went beyond the typical catacomb style of simply stacking the bones, instead opting to create sculptures and decorative features out of them.
Hill of Crosses, Siauliai, Lithuania
No one is quite sure how or why this small patch of land in northern Lithuania has become a site for hundreds of thousands of crosses but the tradition is well and truly cemented and thousands more appear each year, these days mainly from Catholic pilgrims. At first glance it looks like an incredibly crowded burial ground but as far as anyone knows there isn’t a single grave here. One theory regarding the origins of the place is that relatives of people dying during the 1831 November Uprising against the Russian Empire had no bodies to bury, so would put a cross here as a symbolic act.
Miranda Castle, Celles, Belgium
This foreboding Gothic castle served as an orphanage for much of the 20th century but since 1990 has been totally abandoned and is now, perhaps unsurprisingly, said to be severely haunted. Children’s dolls lay scattered throughout some of the rooms – a ghoulish reminder of the castle’s history – and lightning strikes have caused major damage over the years. The owners are said to have filed it for demolition, so until then it will remain a playground for urban explorers and ghost hunters.
Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic
Established about 600 years ago, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague contains more than 12,000 tombstones, but many more thousands of people are thought to be buried there. The reason for the extreme overcrowding is largely due to Jewish religious law, which prohibits the disturbance of graves. This meant that when the cemetery ran out of space, and the Jewish population were unable to purchase more land, more layers of soil had to be placed on existing graves, so that new burials could take place without disturbing the old ones. As a result, the cemetery is thought to have about 12 layers of graves.
Crypt of Santa Maria, Rome, Italy
Apt words can be found inscribed on a plaque in this pant-wettingly spooky crypt: “What you are, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Like other similar spots featured in this article, the catacombs of Santa Maria are oppressing in their morbidness: tens of thousands of bones line the walls and ceilings, with some skeletons fully intact and dressed in their original robes. The result is a fantastically creepy experience.
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