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6 Overgrown Cemeteries, Tombs and Catacombs


We’ve all experienced those cliched opening scenes of horror films where the wind whistles – and sometimes roars – through the trees of an overgrown cemetery, or a wolf howls menacingly in the background.  But some cemeteries are so atmospheric and eerie that it’s hard not to be taken in by the tangled gravestones fit for any Hammer Horror production and catacombs worthy of Indiana Jones.


Highgate Cemetery in London is the quintessential burial ground, with its famed Egyptian Avenue and gravestones so consumed by undergrowth you’d think the plants were trying to drag them below the earth.  Highgate was built in 1839 to ease overcrowding caused by the sheer number of burials in London’s inner city graveyards.  Health concerns and the undignified treatment of the dead resulting from overcrowding were the main reasons to open Highgate, one of seven large cemeteries around London known as the Magnificent Seven.  As well as accomodating the late Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery is known for its so-called occult past, specifically the alleged Highgate Vampire – now a staple of local folklore.


The angel in this cemetery in Plymouth, England, almost appears to be weeping, as rain water runs down its face and drips off the end of its nose.  It seems rather fitting given the overgrown state of the place, where some gravestones emerge from the long grass while other smaller ones – often those of children or paupers – have become hidden in the undergrowth.


But this is a place where life really does go on.  Cemeteries – particularly old ones that have fallen into disrepair over the years since plots filled up and local authorities stopped maintaining them – are great sources of plant and animal life.  The rain may not be good for the stones in the long term, as they begin to list and eventually topple, but it’s definitely good for the ecosystem.


The photographs above show family vaults opened and abandoned.  Grand vaults and tombs such as these were the final resting places of the well-off, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after seeing these family burial places in less than affluent condition.  The name can still be made out above the entrance, but the residents have long since given up the ghost.


The Rome Catacombs are even more extensive than their famous counterpart in Paris.  The Basilica of Saint Cecilia is one of the most sacred areas of the catacombs, beneath which lies the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, the Crypt of the Sacraments and the Crypt of the Popes, where around nine early Popes were laid to rest.  Saint Cecilia‘s grave is located in one of the underground chambers, although her relics were removed in AD 821.  While the bones in the Rome Catacombs are predominantly Christian, pagan and Jewish burials also took place there – some in separate chambers, but many mixed together.


The incredible Chapel of Bones is one of the most famous monuments in Evora, Portugal.  Built by a Franciscan monk during the 16th century, this hall of death is built with one purpose in mind – to reflect the transitory nature of life.  The forboding warning above the entrance famously reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos, which roughly translates to: We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.


Five thousand skeletons are estimated to line the walls of the Chapel of Bones, which is itself a small interior chapel adjacent to the entrance of the Church of St Francis.  The scene feels somewhat grizzly for the house of God.  The walls of the chapel and its eight pillars are “decorated” in carefully arranged skulls and bones, formerly belonging to monks.  Most gruesome of all, dangling from chains attached to the ceiling are two desiccated corpses, one of which is a child.


The graves above are a curious feature in the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, UK.  The gothic design of the stones and dates engraved into them place these burials in the 19th century.  Curiously, there is no church nearby – at least not an existing one.  The stones stand (or lie) in an overgrown corner of a small car park close to what used to be the railway station.  Not exactly what you’d expect from a Victorian burial ground – a rather grand one by the look of the graves – this was probably once the site of a much larger cemetery.

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