It may seem a little macabre to want to visit the cellars of a monastery to view piles of bones in open mass graves. However, the catacombs of the San Francisco Monastery are actually quite popular. Slightly bizarre was the celebratory dancing and music we found happening at the entrance doors. But this is Peru and random celebrations are something I love to stumble across.
The catacombs were only discovered in the 1940s and as we descend into the depths, the guide asks if we are claustrophobic and then tells us about the vast weight above us and something about earthquake tremors, but thankfully I am not listening too carefully as I concentrate on ducking my head under the low doorways.
The site was the town cemetery until 1808. There are private tombs for the Franciscans, separate rooms for the wealthy or noble, and mass graves for the poor. A small girl in our group is spooked when she hears that less than 6 months ago a Franciscan was buried just through the barred gate she is standing by. She does not like it down here at all and has to leave. We enter into the real catacombs next.
We can hear the muffled church service above us and every now and then can see up through floor grills into the church or monastery as we walk along the dusty pathways between the pits. The pits are 5-6 meters deep below our feet and it is believed around 75,000 people are buried here. We see thousands of human bones and skulls. The bones all just piled on top in continuous rows of rectangular pits, trays and shelves.
We come across a large circular pit with bones and skulls artfully arranged. This pit is thought to contain 10,000 bodies, layed by bone type. It is for the poor people, a communal burial site. The reason there are only large bones and skulls is, we are told, that the small bones disintegrate and then the remaining bones are rearranged to make more space, layer by layer i.e., femurs, then ulnas, then skulls. Not a job for the squeamish.
As we head up to ground level, we can hear the children choir singing above. It is nice to have a light hearted melody to end the tour of a mass burial site.
Back to sunlight, we see a little more of the monastery, the cloister courtyard and then out we go. An hour flew by and the dancers have gone. The church is instead swarmed by pigeons. Spooky.
Note : it is not permitted to take photographs inside, so these are not our own, but from found on the museo website.