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The Dead on Display

There are a number of places in the world, most of them religious, that display the dead in one way or another for the edification of any visitor with a strong stomach and the price of admission.

Some of these sites result from a phenomenon that has naturally (or supernaturally?) mummified the dead, while others consist of artful arrangements of bones and skulls done by a creative monk in his spare time. In addition to such collections of human remains, many saints whose bodies have been miraculously preserved are on display in churches. (There's also a Buddhist example of the miracle in Siberia.)

Such displays of the dead certainly appeal to travelers with a taste towards the macabre, but they can also provide reflective travelers with a powerful reminder of the impermanence of life. Whatever your reason for checking out the dead on display, the sites below are widely recognized as among the best in the world. Also listed are individual preserved bodies of saints and other famous figures.

Collections of Bodies and Bones

  • Capuchin Catacombs - Palermo, Sicily
    Over 350 years ago, the Capuchin monks of Palermo discovered that bodies buried in their catacombs remained remarkably well-preserved. Word soon got out, and everyone who was anyone asked to be buried in their Sunday best in these catacombs. Today, visitors can view over 8,000 mummies in various stages of creepy decay or preservation.
  • Mummy Museum - Guanajuato, Mexico
    Unlike the otherwise similar site in Sicily, the deceased inhabitants of this museum are not here by choice. In fact, the poor corpses are on display for any curious visitor to see because they (well, their relatives) failed to the pay the rent on their burial plot. It is unknown why the dead who have been placed in this museum are mummified – scientists have thus far been unable to explain the phenomenon.
  • Sedlec Ossuary - Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
    The ossuary of the "Bone Church," as it is popularly known, contains approximately 40,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for a Cisterician monastery chapel.
  • Chapel of Bones - Evora, Portugal
    This 16th-century chapel is lined with the skulls and skeletons of about 5,000 people from local cemeteries, plus two leathery corpses hanging from the ceiling for unknown reasons. The macabre display was created by a couple of monks who wished to contemplate the transitory nature of life — and communicate that message to others. A painted note over the entrance reads, "Our bones that are here await yours."
  • St. Michan's Church - Dublin, Ireland
    Because of the dry atmosphere in the underground burial vault, bodies have lain here for centuries without showing signs of decomposition.

Incorrupt Saints on Display

  • St. Andrew Bobola
    Church of St. Andrew Bobola, Warsaw, Poland
    Died in 1657, discovered incorrupt 1697.
  • St. Bernadette Soubirous
    Convent of St. Gildard, Nevers, France
    The visionary of Lourdes, died 1879. Surely the most beautiful corpse you'll ever see (with some help from wax).
  • Mother Cabriani
    Mother Cabrini High School Chapel, New York City, USA
    Italian-born nun, died in Chicago 1917.
  • St. Catherine Labouré
    Chapel, Rue du Bac, Paris, France
    A Mary visionary, exhumed after 56 years.
  • St. Catherine of Bologna
    Died 1463, has been on display in an upright position for over 500 years.
  • St. Clare of Assisi
    Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi, Italy
    Died 1253.
  • St. Clare of Montefalco
    Church of the Holy Cross, Montefalco, Italy
    Body and heart with cross imprint enshrined separately.
  • Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov
    Ivolginsky Datsan, Siberia, Russia
    A rare Buddhist example: a monk who died in the lotus position in 1927 and remains seated and undecayed today.
  • St. Etheldreda
    St Etheldreda’s Catholic Church, Ely, England
    Just her hand is on display.
  • St. Francis Xavier
    Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa, India
    Most of incorrupt body on display in a silver casket.
  • St. John Vianney
    Shrine of St. John Vianney, Ars, France
    Beloved parish priest of Ars, died 1859, exhumed 1904.
  • St. Padre Pio
    San Giovanni Rotondo, Southern Italy
    Died 1968. Exhumed and temporarily(?) on display from April 24, 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of his death.
  • Pope John XXIII
    St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
    On display in a glass casket.
  • Blessed Paula Frassinetti
    Chapel of the Convent of Santa Dorotea in Rome, Italy
    Died in 1882, exhumed 1906.
  • St. Rita of Cascia
    Basilica of St Rita, Cascia, Italy
    The patron saint of hopeless cases, died 1457. Her body has been seen in different positions in the glass case and her eyes have opened and closed unaided.
  • St. Sperandia
    Benedictine Convent, Cingoli, Italy
    Died 1276, exhumed eight times, the last in 1952. Said to exude a sweet fragrance ("odor of sanctity").
  • St. Teresa Margaret
    Monastery of St. Teresa, Florence, Italy
    Died 1770, exhumed 1783.
  • St. Vincent Pallotti
    Church of St. Salvatore, Onda, Italy
    Died 1850, exhumed 1906 and 1950.
  • St. Zita
    Basilica of St. Frediano, Lucca, Italy
    Died 1278.

Notable Non-Saints on Display

  • Jeremy Bentham
    University College Lobby, London, England
    Utilitarian philosopher, died 1832, requested in his will to be preserved and displayed.
  • Lenin
    Lenin Mausoleum, Russia
    Died 1924, wanted a simple burial, but has been on display ever since his death.

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