When visiting Europe, most people tell me they want to visit famous paintings and sculptures in museums and galleries, 500-year old churches and basilicas, taste wine from some of the most respected vineyards, and enjoy new spices and food. Yes, Europe is spectacular and has all these wonderful things. No matter how many times I visit Europe, I always see something amazing and learn about a new culture. One cultural difference that I have always found fascinating were how Europeans treated their dead. Burying them in vast chambers called Catacombs.
The very first catacombs were a system of underground tombs in Rome where the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul were said to have been buried. Since Rome originally created these tombs, cities thereafter also called their catacombs, Roman Catacombs. It wasn’t until after the early 1800’s that each city started to name their own catacombs including the city of Paris, which infamously holds the remains of close to 2 million people.
My first time going to visit a catacomb was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in Sicily. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these 400-year old catacombs. Quite frankly, I thought I was going to walk into a dark, chilly, and smelly underground chamber of bones. I was quite surprised. These catacombs were well lit with natural light from the outside and lights inside. There was a nice walkway with railings for support. Some of the dead were dressed in their burial clothes, while others were just bones. It was quite surreal to be walking around all these bones. At the same time, I felt a sense of togetherness. A culture that was keeping all their dead together, and were allowed to visit to see them whenever they wanted.
This experience has taught me to open my eyes to new adventures. What I see on the television or through pictures is not the same as what it is really like when you are there in person. I am sure that not everyone enjoys going through catacombs, but for me it was an experience that I will never forget. I learned about another culture’s view of the death. I learned that it was not as scary as I thought it would be and that despite many catacombs being depicted as dark, chilly underground layers, it was quite nicely displayed.
Various European Cities are well-known for their catacombs. Besides the most well-known ones in Rome and Paris, there are some in London, Czech Republic, Austria, Spain, Ukraine, Malta, Finland and Greece. There is even a catacomb here in the US at the St. Patrick Old Cathedral located in New York City.
I get a lot of requests where people want to immerse themselves into the culture of the country they are going to visit. I recommend that one way you can do this is to go visit the catacombs in that region. This will really give you a good glimpse into how that particular culture views deaths and takes care of their dead.
Some recommend tours in Europe: