Mummies, Bones & Catacombs: Seeing Dead People for Fun

Seeking skeletons, mummies and other human remains -- seeing dead people for fun -- is a pursuit I've dubbed "cadravel," from "cadaver" plus "travel."
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Seeking skeletons, mummies and other human remains -- seeing dead people for fun -- is a pursuit I've dubbed "cadravel," from "cadaver" plus "travel."

Cadravel is spooky, but it's also wake-up-and-smell-the-membrane sobering, reminding us that life is short, that we're all the same inside and that we'll all end up this way -- well, maybe not with our tibia transformed into chandeliers at the Czech Republic's skele-tastic Sedlec Ossuary, say, but dead. Which is something we seriously need to know.


Years of experience have shown me that cadravel is where murderabilia meets disaster porn meets archaeology meets standing awestruck in sacred sites.

And what better season for it than Halloween? Let your own taste in postmortem tourist attractions guide you, but here are a few suggestions:


Found on a Chilean beach in 2005 after having been carefully flayed, eviscerated, stuffed with clay and then "reupholstered" with their own flesh and sea-lion skin by pre-Inca people some 7,000 years ago, the sculpturally stunning Chinchorro Mummies are hailed as the world's oldest deliberately preserved human remains. They're on display at the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum near Arica, Chile.

The bones, body parts and entire bodies of saints are displayed in hundreds of Catholic churches worldwide. Medieval pilgrimages to such sites, many of which were credited with miraculous healings, effectively triggered European tourism. (I wrote a book about this. I've also written books about offbeat travel, sacred sites and the many textures of grief. It's all connected.) The corpse of Saint Catherine, who died in 1463, sits fully clad amidst golden splendor in Bologna, Italy's Church of Corpus Domini.


The well-preserved corpse of Saint Angela Merici, who died in 1540, is on view at the Church of St. Afra in Brescia, Italy:


Also in Italy, the mummified body of Saint Zita -- a Tuscan-born housemaid who died in 1272 and is now the patron saint of domestic workers -- is displayed in Lucca's Basilica di San Frediano:


Not planning a trip to Europe? The wax-encased skeletal remains of Saint Maria Goretti, who was slain at age eleven by a would-be rapist in 1902, is usually installed at the Basilica of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti in Nettuno, near Rome (as depicted below), but is currently touring America. Its "Pilgrimage of Mercy" tour ends in Tulsa, OK on November 11.


Belize's Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, a longtime Maya ceremonial site, is now an archaeological wonderland housing many artifacts including a full skeleton dubbed the Crystal Maiden: Sparkling faintly, calcified into the cavern floor from which it gazes, one leg straight and the other bent, it's said to evince ancient sacrifice. Luxury travel company Black Tomato offers glamping tours of the cave.


The bones of some 4,000 friars -- some assembled into mosaic-like motifs and some posed fully clad -- flamboyantly festoon the Capuchin Crypt under Rome's Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Few sites on earth put you more flagrantly, fabulously face-to-face with the freakiest fact of life: e.g., death:


The seated, sunglassed-and-saffron-robed, naturally mummified body of Luong Por Daeng (aka Luong Pho Daeng), a Buddhist monk who died in 1973, is displayed in a glass case at Wat Khunaram on the Thai island of Koh Samui.

Houston's Museum of Natural Science recently expanded its Hall of Ancient Egypt to an impressive 10,000-square-foot space whose human remains include Ankh Hap, the mummy of a middle-aged man who died some 2,500 years ago.

Ancient Egyptian mummies can also be seen at dozens of other museums, including the British Museum, Chicago's Field Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (which -- special bonus! -- also houses animal mummies).

Disinterred from a nearby cemetery, hundreds of naturally mummified corpses -- many of them fully clad in 19th-century suits and shrouds -- are on gruesome display in Guanajuato, Mexico's very popular Museo de las Momias.

Nicknamed Ötzi, aka the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old remains of a tattooed man killed by an arrow and discovered frozen in a glacier by Alpine hikers in 1991 and subsequently hailed as Europe's oldest-known naturally preserved human mummy is now displayed in Italy's South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.


If you're unable -- or afraid -- to access actual human remains, consider sidestepping your way into cadravel by viewing vivid facsimiles such as the heart-wrenching plaster-casts of corpses at Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano, an exhibition running through January 3 at Canada's Royal Ontario Museum.


Tombs and cemeteries also chill the spine, as do sites that once housed the dead -- such as the family crypt included in tours of the Beekman Mansion in Sharon Springs, NY, home of authors/farmers/reality-TV stars Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, aka the Fabulous Beekman Boys.


(Ghost-hunting travel -- which I've just dubbed ghravel -- is a whole 'nother thing, whether it entails pirate/ghost-themed nighttime kayaking eco-tours on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; allegedly haunted establishments such as historic Los Angeles movie-star bar Tom Bergin's; or ghost tours of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Dumfries & Galloway, the Isle of Skye and just about every other square inch of allegedly extremely haunted Scotland. Wherever you find your life-is-short-so-strangers-might-stare-at-your-skull-someday reminders, now's the time.)

Chinchorro Mummies image courtesy of SERNATUR. Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave image courtesy of Black Tomato and the Brandman Agency. Pompeii exhibition images courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum. Beekman crypt image courtesy of Gary Knight and Beekman 1802. All other images by Kristan Lawson. All images used with permission.

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