I was shocked to see graves under my feet

Tombs on cathedral floors…

I craned my neck to marvel at the grandeur of the Gothic 225-feet high western twin towers of the 700-year old Westminster Abbey. Steps away, across the road, were the stately Big Ben and the illustrious Houses of Parliament. It was difficult to decide which was more impressive…London’s premier worship portal or the political powerhouse.

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Westminster Abbey makes a grand first impression

Inside the Abbey, eyes glued around and overhead, we gawked at the splendour of the 100-feet tall cloisters, the extraordinary chandeliers, the exotic stained glass windows, the ornate vaulted ceiling, the ancient wall paintings, and the medieval coronation throne.

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And the drama continues inside

Until the moment a couple near us stopped short in their tracks to peer at the floor. What???? Lost in my fascination with the walls and the ceiling, I had completely missed the ground under my feet, covered with dozens of tomb markers!! No one else seemed to be bothered about strolling over the graves! I signalled to Vikas and he nodded solemnly, he had just noticed too. 

The grave markers or ledger-stones, as they are called, were apparently quite common in the floors of cathedrals and churches during 17th and 18th century in England, Wales and much of Europe. The stones laid in the floor above the actual tomb individual usually carried inscriptions…name, epitaph, dates, coat of arms, and decorative signs.

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Watch where you walk!

Big culture shock. So this was completely acceptable then? Hardly respectful…we were walking over their bodies after all! I wanted to step aside, but there was no way I could do that without stepping over at least some of the tombs. So, I quickened my pace and crossed over as fast as I could without seeming creeped out…reading some of the names as I passed. Most were worn from the traffic of people, their inscriptions faded and readable, some stones damaged, weakened and cracking. 

Later, we learnt that there are 450 tombs and monuments in Westminster Abbey and that for several hundred years anyone who could afford the cost could be buried in the Abbey, until they started restricting it to public figures. Other than royals like King Edward III, King Lawrence Olivier, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, this is the final resting place of 3,000-plus people including notable playwrights, poets, scientists and statesmen including Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and William Wordsworth. That’s makes it a really large burial ground…

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Hallowed floors…tracing the who’s who!

A few years later, while visiting the elaborately ornate Franciscan Cathedral at Porto, Portugal, I was reminded of Westminster Abbey…an oddly strange similarity, despite the modest Gothic exterior, a far cry from the grandeur of the London cathedral.

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Sombre exterior of the Franciscan Cathedral at Porto…

The inside, however, made me gasp…gold, gold and more gold carvings everywhere…an estimated 400kg of gilt-covered wood carvings and statues! They should probably check every visitors’ fingernails…in case people scrape off some. A natural pay-off from the discovery of gold in Brazil…but wait, didn’t the Franciscans monks take a vow of poverty?

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Surprise!!! Gold-laden walls lie within

In stark contrast to the ostentatious decor of the church, the underground catacombs were quite nondescript. We found ourselves walking over creaking floorboards, numbered serially. Oh no, not again! Beneath lay thousands of dead bodies…possibly whole families stretching back many generations laid to rest in the same family vault…rows and rows of eerie tombs! Patrons and families died buried in hallowed ground inside the church to be “closer to heaven”! 

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Walking over tombs in the catacombs
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Inside an underground graveyard

And in one corner of the crypt, through a glass, grated window in the floor, a piles of human bones was enough to freak me out completely! We learnt that these bones belonged to the common people. A Friar would had the task of collecting the bones and arranging them one upon the other.

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This is as much as I could take!

That was it. We cut short the rest of the tour and returned for a fresh draft of air outside and I said to Vikas, “I would choose Westminster Abbey any day, thanks very much! Make no bones about it.”

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88 thoughts on “I was shocked to see graves under my feet

  1. Wow this should have been an amazing visit! I would love to see this Abbey. It reminds me a bit the St John’s co cathedral in Valletta, Malta: graves on the floor and gold everywhere on the walls

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  2. The Abbey looks impressive, if I spotted the tombs as soon as you did, there’s no way I look back up… I would go celebrity hunting, author hunting and taking every possible picture of my favorite writer. I’d love to visit mostly for the graves to be honest!!

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  3. The Westminster Abbey looks majestic! I think it’s a great spot to rest in peace, don’t you? I wouldn’t like being walked on by visitors though!

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  4. LOL. The bone window would freak me out. Lots of places in London have bodies underneath them – the city is so old and has spread so much. In the old days you got buried ‘in the country’ and then the city just spread up around it. For example, there are rumours that Primrose Hill (next to Regents Park) is an old plague pit where thousands of plague victims are buried. No one has dug it up deep enough to find out. Usually you find these things when you dig down for skyscraper foundations or extensions of the Tube.

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  5. First of all, the architecture here is completely stunning! I can only imagine the beauty in person. I, like you, would be slightly bothered by walking on those graves as well! It’s interesting how different places in the world bury their deceased. That pile of bones is very creepy!

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  6. I have been there and the tombs gave me a creepy feeling also. Later I learned more about dark tourism and now there are so many sights like these (and much worse) associated with death becoming highly popular. I still have mixed feelings about the dead being a tourist attraction. But nice description of the place !

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  7. I loved this post! Kinda creepy but super cool. I felt that way when I was in Cambodia at the Killing Fields (obviously much more depressing), but that kind of history is always interesting to me. You gotta take the good with the bad. This is a super unique way to honor the dead

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  8. I had a similar experience in Italy when I was in one of the gothic cathedrals and noticed the names on the floors and walls. At first, I was worried about being disrespectful, but then I started to read some of the names. Famous historical figures, scientists, artists and political figures. Pretty soon my inner geek had me running around to see how many inspirations I could find.

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  9. My trip to London was super short and I failed to visit Westminster Abbey. I would love to, especially since bones and tombs don’t scare me anymore. Too many episodes of Bones, I guess? I loved your shot of the bones under the floor. Quite the Shakespearean reminder that what’s left of us is the same as for everyone else, a pile of bones. What better incentive to live life at the fullest and travel some more? 😀

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  10. We had a similar kind of shock in Malta early this year. Two of the churches we visited had the tombs inlaid under the marble flooring and how uncomfortable we were to step on it. Franciscan Cathedral at Porto looks stunningly beautiful with so much gold all around 🙂

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  11. I haven’t been to London but I guess it’s good that I know about this burial ground. I will make it a point to visit this place whenever I am off to London. It does sound creepy but awesome at the same time.

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  12. Burial inside the church compound is still happening even nowadays. I remember in my Mom’s hometown where the church allows to bury dead babies in their church compound, including some of the rich and famous of the town. I could help but smirk with this idea. Seems like these people (both living and dead) are very concern about their status in life. Maybe you are right – burying in the church might be a way to be closer to heaven… really?

    -blairvillanueva

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  13. When I went there, I was happily gazing at the Abbey and walking all across it. When my friend pointed out it was a grave I almost shrieked like a banshee. 😛 I do have one question though Were you allowed to photograph inside the Abbey cause it was written that its not usually allowed inside.

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  14. I felt the same too when I first stepped into Westminster Abbey – I wasn’t sure where to place my feet but all I could do was continue walking. i thoroughly enjoyed listening to the historic tape though. Also – I cannot believe they buried Elizabeth and Mary together! Not sure how Mary feels about being buried below her sister?

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  15. I didn’t know that there were tombstones inside Westminster Abbey and that you have to step on them in order to pass. This reminds me of my recent trip to Malta, where the cathedrals are the same, their entire floors are covered with tombstones. I guess they are part of the history now. You wouldn’t step on a grave in the cemetery but we have to think that underneath those floors in the cathedrals there is nothing left… their bodies are long gone.

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  16. I love Westminster Abbey. I was there a couple years back and attended a Sunday service. I found it incredible with the acoustics and choir. The architecture and history truly is amazing and a very pleasant experience.

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  17. You know what is sad…I managed to get really close to Westminister Abbey but it was closing time 😦 I wanted to so see the interiors. Glad I could do it through your blog. And well, not so glad for it looks interesting enough for me to have missed seeing it.

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  18. Mate, your pictures are brilliant! To be honest, I used to work right next to Westminster and didn’t know about the buried bodies, I would walk by it everyday when I lived in London! Walking on bones, that’s so creepy.

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  19. special room there is a lot of human bones was very creepy. Is it real or just a toy?
    But it seems not to be creepy if we are discussing with many people. I think the place was amazing.

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  20. Its shocking and also interesting to know about the walking over those dead bodies bit seeing gold gold and gold every where would have been so lucrative wondering to just scrap a bit but could not …i still wonder why would they collect arrange those human bones on that window.

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  21. I can’t tell you how many times I said “WOW” while reading this post. Both of those churches are absolutely beautiful!! Of all places the first location I remember seeing those graves in the ground like that was in Sri Lanka and like you, I also had to watch my step once I noticed!

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  22. That saying when you get a shiver and say “I think someone has just walked over my grave….” Don’t think I could have walked over them?! Looks super interesting though, I’d like to experience it (even if only the once!)

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  23. We’ve been to London a few times on day trips from Birmingham and somehow we have never managed to go inside Westminster Abbey. It’s pretty nice in there, might be worth a visit! That second cathedral is amazing with the gold covered walls, we wouldn’t mind visiting Porto sometime. If you don’t like bones and creepy stuff then definitely don’t go to the Sedlec Ossuary near Kutna Hora in Czech Republic. That’s a super creepy church. It’ll give you nightmares.

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  24. Its very common in Europe and I remember that as a child I felt very uncomfortable and tried to walk around. In Portugal there is a little chapel with walls all covered with bones (in Évora). Quite creepy!

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