Catacombs are man-made underground chambers that are connected with a network of tunnels which were used for religious purposes and more often than not for storing the dead or for burials. Many cultures have historically used catacombs to bury their dead, in fact people have been laying their dead to rest in caves since time began, although most are more closely associated with the early Christian church, the most famous being the catacombs of Rome and Paris which are open to the public, are vast and are historically important.
The reasons that people started using catacombs seem to be very practical. Because they are underground, the depth of catacombs usually ensures that the dead will be kept cool and that they won’t be disturbed by future developments or by natural occurrences such as flooding which can sadly affect graves on the surface. On a more practical level, storage deep underground also means that the bodies won’t contaminate the ground or water supply as they decay. Catacombs can also be expanded at that depth to accommodate the dead in the future; in fact many catacombs reveal signs of this with many new chambers and connecting tunnels being added on over the years giving a respectful resting place to important people. The original Roman catacombs were designed as temporary holding facilities for the bodies of Christian martyrs, people who deserved the highest respect for the actions they took in life for their faith, and many catacombs are located beneath churches showing the significant link to the early Christian culture that promoted their use.
After the practice of using catacombs for religious figureheads, it became more common for them to also be used for generally important citizens, leaders and the wealthy. Many well-off families would have chambers to themselves allowing generations of the same family to be buried together in safety and relative opulence, some catacombs have notes about those buried within which can be very historically valuable today to learn about the practices and rituals used at the time. Undertakers of the age would take the dead to be stored in the chambers in coffins, shrouds, or urns in the case of cremation, depending on the wishes, wealth and family directions, they were also used for memorial ceremonies and funeral services if the person was to be laid to rest there, all of this could take place underground, privately and peacefully.
Today, catacombs are generally not used; surface crypts for family burials became more popular as has the use of cremation. There are rare occurrences however when ancient catacombs have been employed on a temporary based following a natural disaster or epidemic, in fact Exeter city council in the UK considered using their 19th century catacombs to store the bodies of Swine Flu victims as recently as 2009.