Naples, Italy's Creepy Fontanelle Cemetery

One plague plus one city built on limestone equals one creepy cemetery

Fontanelle Cemetery
Robert Schrader

In the mid-17th century, an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague quickly spread throughout the Kingdom of Naples, now part of the modern-day country of Italy. The rate of death exceeded the rate at which churches could prepare burial plots, however, which forced undertakers to take grisly action – namely, moving old remains to a cave to make room for the new dead.

Think that's creepy? You'll never guess what happened to the bones after they were interred at a site now known as Fontanelle Cemetery, today estimated to hold more than eight million of them. Hint: You'll be able to see the answer to this question with your own eyes.

The Indigent Cemetery of Naples

Before I can tell you what happened to the bones at Fontanelle Cemetery, I need to explain a bit more of the history to you – the interment of "old bones" following the overwhelming plague outbreak was only the beginning of the macabre goings on here.

To be sure, a few decades later, a period of great floods in Naples resulted in the bones from the cemetery washing out of the cave. Once the waters receded and the bones were finally restored, it was in even more sloppy and careless a manner than before. This led the French, who'd overtaken the city by the early 19th century, to designate Fontanelle Cemetery as the official final resting place for the indigent population of Naples.

A Creepy Cult of Devotion

As if all this wasn't bad enough, a new epidemic hit Naples in the mid-19th century (this time, it was cholera), which led to even more anonymous corpses being laid to rest at Fontanelle Cemetery. Around the same time, word of the existence of the cemetery began to get out around Naples, causing residents of the city to begin coming to see it for themselves – many became sympathetic toward the bones.

Others were downright devoted, arguing that since the dead interred at Fontanelle Cemetery had largely lived lives of invisibility and indigence, they needed to be looked after in death, a tendency that over time resulted in the formation of "cults of devotion" toward the bones. These became increasingly ubiquitous until 1969, when the Cardinal of Naples banned them on account of their sacrilegiousness and closed the cemetery.

How to Visit Fontanelle Cemetery

The good news is that Fontanelle Cemetery has since been re-opened, albeit as a historical site, rather than a cemetery in active use. With this being said, you shouldn't be shocked upon walking into the cave and seeing more skulls than you can count, to say nothing of the other random bones strewn about. Fontanelle Cemetery is certainly in contention for the world's most bizarre open-air museum, if nothing else.

To visit Fontanelle Cemetery, which is free to enter as of July 2014, take Line 1 of the Naples Metro to "Materdei" station, then follow signs that point toward Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Alternatively, hail a cab to "Cimitero delle Fontanelle." The cemetery is open every day from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and you need neither an appointment nor a ticket to visit, although if you visit during the winter you should dress warmly, since the museum is technically outdoors.

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