What’re catacombs?

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Catacombs are underground burial chambers used by various cultures, but most closely associated with early Christianity. They are practical for disposing of the dead and can be expanded indefinitely. The Roman catacombs were originally designed for Christian martyrs and used for burial ceremonies and annual commemorations. They reveal interesting information about the people within them and are still used by some monastic sects today.

Catacombs are underground burial chambers, typically connected with a network of tunnels. Several cultures have a history of using these chambers to bury their dead, although they are most closely associated with the early Christian church today. Several sites around the world have extensive catacombs that are sometimes open to visitors, including the original Roman catacombs and the Paris catacombs.

From a purely practical point of view, catacombs are a great option for respectfully disposing of the dead. Because they are underground, they occupy no valuable real estate above ground, and their depth usually ensures that the dead do not contaminate the water supply or reemerge in times of flooding. The chambers can also be expanded almost indefinitely, in theory, to accommodate further dead, and in fact many show signs of just that, with various chambers and galleries added over the centuries.

People have buried their dead in caves for thousands of years, but the real catacombs – as in artificially constructed networks of tunnels, galleries and niches – appear to have been built in the second century, Rome. Originally, they were designed as temporary holding facilities for the bodies of Christian martyrs, and eventually expanded. The Roman catacombs arose in response to a number of factors. Burials were forbidden in Rome’s city limits, for one thing, so these chambers could evade the law, and they were also useful for religious minorities like early Christians who might otherwise be interrupted tending to their dead.

Historically, catacombs were used to house the dead in coffins, shrouds, sarcophagi or urns, and they were also used for memorial services. The burial ceremony could take place in the catacomb, for example, as well as subsequent annual commemorations and funerary festivals. Wealthy families might have a section of the chambers to themselves, allowing them to bury each other among their ancestors.

Many are found under churches, emphasizing their connection to the early practice of Christianity. While the practice of using catacombs is less widespread than it once was, some monastic sects still use them for their dead, and early church researchers often enjoy visiting these chambers to learn more about burial traditions in the history of Christianity. Catacombs can also reveal interesting information about the people within them, as many niches are marked with plaques containing details about the lives and dead of the people they contain.

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