Porto’s São Francisco Church is best known for its ornate interior, which is virtually covered with gold. Below the church, though, is a interesting part of Porto’s history.
Cemeteries are a relatively new way of handling the dead. The original method, according to one of the docents at the church, was to simply throw the body in the river. This went on for many years. Obviously, it’s a great way to spread disease among the surviving community.
Eventually the churches discovered that the wealthier members of the community would pay to be interred under the watchful eye of the church. This is where the catacombs comes in.
There are three distinct sections of the catacombs. The first, where the wealthiest are interred, are the private tombs. Each tomb displays the the name of the individual lying inside. This section, to me, was made especially creepy by the stylized skulls at the top of each row of tombs.
A step down from the personal tombs was to be interred in the floor, where each wood section was a tomb. It took a few minutes for us to realize that we could potentially be walking on the dead, but a docent came to the rescue and said there were no longer bodies in the floor, so we no longer had to worry about where we stepped.
According to the docent, the floor tombs were basically rented by the family, and after a period of time the body was removed to make room for the next paying occupant. So what happened to the occupant whose lease was up? Around the corner, towards the back of the catacombs, lies the answer.
Located in the floor is a glass and grate covered opening, a window if you will. If you look through the window you’ll see the prior occupants of the floor tombs as well as those who could not afford private interment. I’ve seen ossuaries before, most notably the one at the Verdun battlefield in France, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see.
While the gold covered main chapel at São Francisco is the undisputed highlight of a visit to the church, the catacombs and museum are well worth a look. Just watch where you step.