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What is a Crypt?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A crypt is an underground chamber which is used to store human remains, relics, and objects of religious or cultural value. Crypts are most commonly found in association with churches, although they also appear on the grounds of cemeteries and in conjunction with older private estates, where residents of the estate might have been buried in the crypt historically. Many people are familiar with the concept of a crypt, thanks to abundant vampire movies and horror films in which people seem to end up trapped in crypts on a regular basis.

In contrast with catacombs, extensive underground networks of burial chambers, crypts are typically single chambers, although they may be quite large, and in some cases they may be galleried to support the weight of the earth above. The earliest crypts were used to bury prominent religious figures, and in the Christian Church, many churches were built over or near crypts so that pilgrims could visit the crypts of saints and other famous religious figures and also attend services at the church. For churches built over crypts, the crypt would also have been a source of revenue, especially if it contained verified saintly relics.

The word “crypt” comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden,” but crypts are not necessarily concealed. Some crypts are actually above ground or only partially underground, and they may be readily accessible to pilgrims, faithful, and the members of a community. The fact that crypts are usually under churches is also a bit of a giveaway; most ancient churches have a crypt lurking beneath their floors.

Typically, a crypt is entirely lined in stone, for safety and support and to protect the remains stored inside. Sarcophagi are commonly used to store remains in a crypt, with some crypts using glass sarcophagi or coffins with glass openings so that people can view the remains. Some crypts also have ossuaries, boxes which contain the cleaned bones of the dead, and they may have chests or caskets of precious or sacred items, like objects which belonged to saints.

Visiting a crypt can be quite interesting, for those who aren't squeamish around human remains. The religious faithful may visit crypts because they believe that the pilgrimage is important to the practice of their faith, with some people believing that being in the presence of relics may be a healing experience, while the history-inclined sometimes like to see the preserved artifacts in crypts.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By gravois — On Aug 12, 2012

It is so crazy to me to think of using human bones to prop up a building or houses.

When you think about it is makes a little bit of sense. They are solid and there is a lot of them.

But it all just seems so morbid. I can't imagine being in a building knowing that the skeletons of a thousand people are below your feet.

By clippers — On Aug 11, 2012

Are there any crypts in America? I know that there are a number of them in other parts of the world but I would like to know if there are any here.

I have always been fascinated by crypts ever since I saw a show about them on the discovery channel about 10 years ago. I have always wanted to visit one but just haven't had the opportunity yet.

By tigers88 — On Aug 10, 2012

I have been to a few crypts in Europe and it is a pretty amazing experience. It is creepy for sure but once you get over the initial shock it becomes really cool and something curious.

A lot of them have been made in artistic ways. It is not just a pile of bones like you might be expecting.

By anon114849 — On Sep 30, 2010

old churches have crypts "lurking" under them? i think you need to look up the definition of the word "lurking".

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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