Lesser-Known Bones: Europe’s Offbeat Crypts and Cemeteries

By Rick Steves
Capuchin Crypt, Palermo, Sicily
The Capuchin Crypt in Palermo, Sicily, displays mummified bodies — complete with clothing--intended to remind the living that life is temporary. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Merry Cemetery, Maramureș, Romania
Romania's colorful Merry Cemetery celebrates its dead with poetry and stylized portraits. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Over the years, I've popped into a lot of burial grounds — some peaceful and scenic, some eerie and evocative — all revealing compelling stories of the past. Some high-profile places — such as the catacombs in Rome or Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris — get a lot of press; these are some of my favorite lesser-known places to commune with Europeans long gone.

Cemetery of the Fountains (Naples)

The series of caves known as the Cemetery of the Fountains (Cimitero delle Fontanelle) are stacked with human bones and dotted with chapels. A thousand years ago, this was just a quarry cut into the hills north of Naples. But in the 16th century, churches with crowded burial grounds began moving the bones of their long dead here to make room for the newly dead. Later, these caves housed the bones of plague victims and paupers. In the 19th century, many churches again emptied their cemeteries and added even more skulls to this vast ossuary. Then devout locals started to "adopt" the remains. They named the skulls, put them in little houses, brought them flowers, and asked them to intervene with God for favors. If you visit this free sight in Naples' gritty Sanità District, consider bringing some flowers too.

Merry Cemetery (Maramureș, Romania)

In 1935, a local woodcarver in northern Romania — inspired by a long-forgotten tradition — began filling a local cemetery with a forest of vivid memorials. Now known as the "Merry Cemetery," each grave comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed doing something he or she loved. Despite the cemetery's name, many of the graves' poems are downright morose. Tales of young lives cut short by tragic accidents, warriors mowed down in the prime of life, and people who simply never found happiness are reminders that life can be anything but cheerful. Even if you can't read the poems, the images speak volumes: weaver…loved bikes…television repairman…soldier…hit by a car…struck by lightning…nagging mother-in-law. It's all painted a cheery blue to match the heavens where the souls are headed. It's a poignant celebration of each individual's life, a chronicle of village history, and an irreverent raspberry in the face of death.

Brú na Bóinne (Boyne Valley, Ireland)

Just 30 miles north of Dublin are two enigmatic burial mounds at the archaeological site of Brú na Bóinne. These 5,000-year-old passage tombs — Newgrange and Knowth (rhymes with "south") — are massive grass-covered burial mounds built atop separate hills, each with a chamber inside reached by a narrow stone passage. The tombs are both precisely aligned to the sun's movements so that a beam of light creeps down the passageway and lights up the chambers — Newgrange at the winter solstice, and Knowth at the equinox. Perhaps the ancients believed that this was the moment when the souls of the dead were transported to the afterlife, via that ray of light. At both sites, huge curbstones — carved with spirals, crosshatches, bull's-eyes, and chevrons — add to the mystery. Thought-provoking, and mind-bogglingly old, these tombs can give you chills.

Aître Saint-Maclou (Rouen, France)

When the Black Death took the lives of 75 percent of this community in northern France in 1348, dealing with the corpses was overwhelming. The half-timbered courtyard of Aître Saint-Maclou was an ossuary where the bodies were "processed" — dumped into the grave and drenched in liquid lime to help speed decomposition. Later, the bones were stacked in alcoves above the arcades that line this courtyard. The exposed wood timbers were later carved with ghoulish images of gravediggers' tools, skulls, crossbones, and characters doing the "dance of death." In this danse macabre, Death, the great equalizer, grabs people of all social classes. A cat skeleton displayed here in a glass case was found in the wall; local historians believe it was a black cat buried alive to ward off evil.

Capuchin Crypt (Palermo, Sicily)

One of my oddest experiences in Sicily is finding myself surrounded by thousands of mummified bodies in the crypt of Palermo's Capuchin monastery. When Capuchin monks passed away, it was common for their brothers to put the bones on show to remind people about their mortality. But the monks of Palermo didn't just display bones, they preserved entire bodies. Later, the monks realized they could charge wealthy parishioners for the privilege of being mummified, which became a fashionable way to be memorialized among some Sicilians. By 1887, the practice had become forbidden except in special cases, and about 4,000 bodies had been collected in their crypt. Today, the public is welcome to wander this collection of fully clothed and remarkably preserved bodies.

All over Europe, you'll find fascinating cemeteries and crypts to visit. When you do, you'll see that even long after death, the bones and memorials still have something to say.