What Is a Crypt in a Cemetery?

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The very word “crypt” is enough to trigger at least some fear in plenty of us. From Dracula to Tales from the Crypt, cultural references to crypts have made us associate them with vampires, ghosts, and plenty of other spooky figures we’d rather avoid.

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That said, many of us also don’t know what a crypt actually is. You might have some idea about the purpose it serves, but still, you might not know how crypts first came about, or what makes a crypt different from a mausoleum.

Keep reading if this subject interests you. This blog post covers what a crypt is, where crypts came from, how crypts have changed throughout history, and what makes crypts unique when compared to other types of burial chambers.

What’s a Crypt?

Although the definition of a crypt has changed somewhat over the centuries, the following points will explain the basic idea of what a crypt is.

They’ll also touch on the origins of crypts, which relate to key reasons why people bury the dead in certain cultures.

Beginnings

The initial idea of a crypt has its roots in Christian history. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Christians to bury the dead in underground catacombs. The original Latin term that eventually gave us the word “crypt” referred to vaulted buildings constructed at least partially beneath ground level. Thus, over time, Christians started referring to their catacombs as crypts (although, as the next section of this entry will explain, the word came to take on a slightly new meaning).

Crypts have actually played a significant role in Christian architecture for many years. From the time of Constantine the Great, who served as ruler of the Roman empire from 306 to 337 BCE, crypts were a common element of many churches. The Council of Mainz in 813 BCE would go on to designate crypts as appropriate burial places for important figures such as bishops and some priests. In some cases, people who were very loyal to the church but weren’t specifically members of the clergy could also qualify for burial in a crypt.

Because crypts served as burial spots for so many important members of churches, their design was often elaborate. Those interested in Christian history or death in different cultures might want to research such famous crypts as those beneath New York City’s Saint John the Divine Cathedral, one of the most elaborate in the world.

Purpose

The Christians who first built crypts did so because they wanted to keep the bodies of certain church figures safe. They also sometimes stored important relics in crypts. Burying key members of the church in cemeteries made their bodies vulnerable to a range of threats, from the elements to vandals. A crypt was a safer alternative.

This brings us back to the difference between catacombs and crypts. Catacombs already existed before crypts started to become more widespread. However, catacombs are usually large structures consisting of long hallways. A crypt is smaller and easier to build. That’s one of the main reasons crypts started to gain prominence. They served the same basic purpose of catacombs without requiring as much construction work.

Current meaning

A crypt no longer needs to be part of a church. It can instead be any underground burial space. For example, some cemeteries are home to crypts. Their entrances are usually stone slab, so you may want to keep an eye out for these features the next time you’re visiting a cemetery. 

The size of today’s crypts can range substantially. Some have many rooms and are basically the same size as the church or building they sit beneath in terms of square footage. Others consist of one single room.

People might now choose to bury their loved ones in crypts for very practical reasons. For example, a lawn crypt is a strong reinforced structure that is more likely to withstand the elements than a traditional coffin. Thus, if someone wants to be certain their loved one’s body will always be safe from a flood or other potential dangers, they might opt for a lawn crypt.

It’s also not uncommon for wealthy people to commission crypts for their entire families. Such crypts are home to members of a few of history’s royal families.

Famous crypts

The fact that crypts started as burial spaces for noteworthy church figures means some have naturally earned a lot of attention from church followers, historians, and tourists. Examples of famous crypts include:

Lund Cathedral’s crypt

The crypt of Sweden’s Lund Cathedral is noteworthy due to its architecture and decor. Several strong pillars support it, and each pillar represents a different design style.

One of the pillars includes a statue of “Finn the Giant,” an essentially mythical figure who in legend built the crypt itself. The Lund Cathedral crypt is also historically important because after its consecration in 1123 it’s remained in a relatively untouched state.

Saint Sernin crypt

In Toulouse, France, the Basilica Saint Sernin already has a reputation for being one of Europe’s oldest Romanesque churches. However, it’s also home to one of the most famous crypts in the world. 

The crypt houses the remains of Saint Saturnin and several others. This is one of the key reasons it became a destination for those following the Saint Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage route. The crypt also contains many important relics, which have stood on display for centuries.

Canterbury Cathedral’s crypt

Like the Basilica Saint Sernin, Canterbury Cathedral is historically significant due because it’s one of England’s oldest cathedrals. Perhaps more importantly, though, it also contains England’s oldest crypt. 

This wasn’t a feature of the original design. The cathedral first served as a Saxon church. In the eleventh century, Norman Archbishop Lanfranc rebuilt the church, adding a crypt beneath it. The crypt would go on to become the final resting place for such noteworthy religious figures as Thomas Beckett. 

Pop culture

Crypts have been a staple of the horror genre for literally hundreds of years now. Author Bram Stoker decided his vampire Dracula should rest in a crypt, probably because it would be easier to rise from than a typical burial coffin.

Since then, plenty of horror novels, TV shows, and movies have associated crypts with malicious forces from beyond the grave. This is somewhat ironic when you consider that the original purpose of a crypt was actually to serve as a respectful burial spot for religious figures.

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What’s the Difference Between a Mausoleum and a Crypt?

The main difference between a crypt and a mausoleum is location. Again, a crypt is beneath the ground. A mausoleum is typically above the ground. It’s usually a building to house dead bodies. Additionally, because a mausoleum is aboveground, it’s not uncommon for a mausoleum to feature noteworthy architecture that makes it both a practical space for keeping bodies as well as a monument to the dead.

Consider the example of the Taj Mahal. Although it’s one of the world’s most iconic buildings, many people don’t realize that the Taj Mahal is technically a mausoleum. The emperor Shah Jahan commissioned its construction after his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died in childbirth. The Egyptian pyramids are also mausoleums.

That’s not to say that crypts can’t also feature impressive architecture. Again, many of the crypts beneath famous churches have very striking designs. Those architectural features simply aren’t in plain view aboveground.

All that said, it’s worth noting that some funeral homes and religious organizations now use the word “crypt” to simply refer to the interment space (more on that in the next section) within a mausoleum. While most would still think of a crypt as being underground, some confusion can arise as a result of this.

How Are Bodies Buried in Crypts?

Entombment is usually the way people bury bodies in crypts. Like a mausoleum, a crypt can feature one or more interment spaces that may hold the coffins of those buried there.

That said, in some cases, a coffin may be more visible than it would be if it remained in an interment space. This might be the case if a crypt housed the body of someone very prominent. As this entry mentioned earlier, at times throughout history people might have visited certain crypts specifically to see the coffins of those buried within them. 

Crypts: A Centuries-Old Burial Method

Like Medieval cemeteries, crypts can make us immediately think of the horror genre. However, also like Medieval cemeteries, crypts have an important history that can tell us a lot about the cultures that first built them.


Sources

  1. “Crypt.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/technology/crypt
  2. “Crypt.” New World Encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Crypt
  3. “Glossary.” Catholic Cemeteries & Mortuaries, The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, catholiccm.org/glossary
  4. “Mausoleum.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/mausoleum
  5. “Taj Mahal.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/Taj-Mahal

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