During my nearly 3 months in the Summer of 1972 in Peru, I was extremely privileged and lucky to have visited the catacombs beneath the cathedral in the main square of Lima, which have long been closed to visitors. At the time, photography was strictly forbidden, so I have no photos to share. They’re possibly available on Wikipedia or with an image search. The Presidential Palace is on the same square and has a beautiful exterior. Google both for an understanding of Spanish colonial architecture and more.
Underground, beneath the floor of the ground level of the cathedral, the walls and ceilings are decorated with skulls and bones arranged in a dizzying array of patterns. There are enclosures full of skulls and bones, too, centuries worth of them. Room after room of this macabre decor! I realize that it’s not decor, it was an acceptable and respectful way to honor the dead. However, I don’t know what entitled one to be “laid to rest” there.
There are so many of them that they cannot all be the skeletons of officials and priests; the common people must have been included, too. Other than the Spanish and the diseases they brought with them, I know of no big die-off of Peruvians, unless it was through epidemics of influenza and other fatal diseases.
Upstairs on the main floor of the cathedral was also the mummified body of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror and scourge of the highly advanced Inca civilization, in a glass case. While the descendants of the Natives living in Peru probably didn’t appreciate having him so enshrined, the Catholic majority there is basically unstoppable. However, “Pizarro Under Glass” (as I and the other somewhat disrespectful American teenagers called him) was removed from public view some years ago and, for all I know, may have become a resident of the catacombs.
Having spent most of my life accompanying my mother to many cemeteries either for genealogy research or just checking out the very old ones in New England and near home, I have a healthy interest in and great respect for the resting places of those who have left this mortal Earth before us. When I visit a cemetery, I enjoy the peace and tranquility of those places. Even my mother and I revert to whispered voices so that the inhabitants may speak to us if they so desire. (Yes, I see and hear dead people.)
My personal interest is in gravestone carvings and the meanings of various motifs and epitaphs. For example, New England has the most amazing stones, which appear to be carved out of slate, that contain beautiful images of death’s heads and cherubs. Some are pretty grim, with oversized sets of teeth and foreboding expressions. Others are more loving and kind, especially those of women and children, if they are fortunate enough to have an expensive carved stone of their own.
We even have one cemetery here in Lancaster County in which many stones are similar in material and style to the dark grey ones in New England. It’s called “Peach Bottom Slate” and is pretty rare in graveyards here.
These places are not scary to me at all. They are restful havens where the dead and living come together in love, grief and yearning. Where I live in Lancaster County, PA, USA there are so many historical and endangered cemeteries that an organization, Grave Concern, exists for the purposes ofe of education, learning, clean-up and preservation of historical graveyards.
One of the members owned and operated a tile, stone and marble company for decades and is able to do repairs, but it’s a difficult and time-consuming process.
Many farms have family cemeteries on them but are no longer in the hands of that family and don’t care about the graves of others. One such farmer removed e every single gravestone in the family cemetery on his land and had begun to remove the stone walls around it when Grave Concern stepped in and had him served with an order to stop. The case went to court and an agreement was reached that allowed him to keep the stone wall along the road and put a plaque on it explaining the graveyard, as well as several of the old gravestones, the most interesting ones. He surrendered the remaining gravestones to our organization for safekeeping.
Lancaster County was inhabited for thousands of years by pre-“Indian” cultures and for hundreds of thousands of years by the modern Native Americans, including the Susquehannocks, Conostoagans and other tribes. Their burials were excavated years ago by archeologists and a few went to museums. Most of those have been returned to local tribes. Others were put back into place. My little village has a number of these backyard burials and the owners keep them very secret and secure.
The last of the Susquehannock adults were murdered in a basement cell beneath the Fulton Opera House I downtown Lancaster. They had been kidnapped and jailed by the Paxtang (or Paxton) Boys, who then killed them.(Google will help you to get the whole fascinating true story.) Some descendants of those tribes have survived to this day and are working on educating the general public through news articles, traveling displays and pow-wows.