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The Creepy World of Catacombs

Skulls and bones in Paris Catacombs
javarman/Shutterstock

To some, underground tunnels filled with skulls and bones would seem creepy, but they have a religious background. If you’ve ever been intrigued by these seemingly nightmarish places, here’s the scoop.

What Is a Catacomb?

Catacombs are more than just backdrops for horror movies and future nightmares. They serve a purpose—although it is a bit of a creepy one. Catacombs are chambers used as burial places and are associated with various religions.

The history of catacombs seems to begin in the Roman Empire. The first catacombs were along the Appian Way in ancient Rome. It’s believed that it was in these underground tombs that Peter and Paul (the apostles) were buried. These Roman catacombs were created in the first century, offering a place to bury the dead (which was not allowed within the city walls).

Cemeteries themselves are religious places, consecrated ground. It’s where people go to honor their dead who have passed on.

The World’s Most Famous Catacombs

It wasn’t until around 1786 that the Paris Catacombs would become a burial ground for the dead. The tunnels the overflowing dead were moved into were already there and had been since the 13th century. They became a means to solve a public health problem, from rotting corpses stinking up the place and spreading disease.

The bodies were moved from overflowing cemeteries into the catacombs. The bones of six million people are located in the depths of the catacombs. You can visit the spooky catacombs or at least part of them. There is about a mile of the underground system that is open for tours, and the rest is closed off and illegal to enter. The entire ex[anse of the system is nearly 200 miles.

You can take a tour of the Paris Catacombs, and get some more information on them with this documentary:

The way the bones are now organized is not how they appeared when the dead were initially moved to the underground burial site. Originally the skeletons of the dead were placed in the catacombs haphazardly with no sense of organization.

It wasn’t until 1810 that the catacombs would get renovations done, and the designs the bones and skulls are now in were created. The director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service at the time, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, lead the renovations, which included adding cemetery decorations and some special rooms in the catacombs to turn it into more of a museum-like atmosphere.

Other Catacombs Around the World

Rome and Paris aren’t the only homes to underground catacombs where the dead have been placed out of sight and out of mind (though the fame of catacombs as a tourist attraction keeps them well-known). There are other such locations around the world.

Odessa Catacombs in Odessa, Ukraine

The catacombs in Odessa may date back as far as the 1600s, or they could be older. Though no one knows the exact age, they do know that the underground tunnels were used during WWII as a hiding place for soldiers.

The Odessa Catacombs cover over 1500 miles of the underground in Ukraine. Over the years since WWII, these catacombs have been used by thieves and smugglers. Groups of people have gotten together to explore the expanse of the catacombs in later years, and hidden things (including guns and soldiers from WWII who had never previously been found).

Unlike the Paris Catacombs, it appears that there are no “illegal” areas is the Odessa Catacombs, but exploring on your own would be dangerous. There is one portion of the catacombs that is open to tours.

While the Odessa Catacombs aren’t full of skulls and femurs like those in Paris, they are dark and creepy, and even home to blind, albino fish. Check out this tour of the open part of the catacombs in Odessa.

The Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York, New York

Most often referred to as Old St. Patrick’s, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral Catacomb is located under New York. So, if you were hoping to find catacombs in the United States, you can rest assured that they exist.

The corridor of the catacomb is 120 feet long, and there are plenty of people buried down there. According to a New York Times article, there are 33 families, five priests, and two bishops buried there. Tours are given of the catacombs, the old cemetery aboveground, and the cathedral upstairs.

The Old St. Patrick’s Catacombs isn’t home to skull-stacked walls, and it’s less creepy (maybe because of its smaller size) than the Odessa Catacombs, but it still offers some amazing history.

If you can’t make it to New York for a tour, you can watch one online:

Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

No discussion of catacombs would be complete without looking at Egypt, where people are laid to rest in crypts of all kinds—including giant pyramids. The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa are located in Alexandria, and they are one of the seven wonders of the world (well, the ones from the middle ages, anyway).

This massive catacombs structure dives 100 feet down under the ground and has three levels. The bottom level now sits underwater. Again, there are no walls of bones in these catacombs, but you will find some fantastic Egyptian art and carvings that are awe-inspiring.

Here’s a video tour of the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa:

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »