Tall tales from the crypt

The Capuchin monastery in Brno is not for the timid - unless they'd like a close encounter with mummifed monks

I sat in the Café Republic in Brno drinking strong coffee and steeling myself to look death in the face. Brno, the Czech Republic's second-largest city, is most famous for its annual motor grand prix. But I was hoping for a far more adventurous and spectacular sight - the mummified monks of the Capuchin monastery crypt.

I sat in the Café Republic in Brno drinking strong coffee and steeling myself to look death in the face. Brno, the Czech Republic's second-largest city, is most famous for its annual motor grand prix. But I was hoping for a far more adventurous and spectacular sight - the mummified monks of the Capuchin monastery crypt.

Now all I had to do was get myself down there. I had been warned by fellow travellers not to go alone since some of the dead look strangled and contorted. However, from my seat in the Café Republic, directly opposite the monastery, I could see that the entrance to the crypt was deserted.

The Capuchin crypt was built by the Brno master builder Ondrej Erna, along with the church and monastery, between 1648 and 1651. It lies to the east of the square known as the Cabbage Market. This 13th- century square was used as a parade ground when Brno was under Nazi occupation, but today it hosts a fruit and vegetable market.

As I was pondering how best to tackle the task ahead, I spotted two tourists hovering at the crypt's entrance. I gulped down my coffee and followed them. However, by the time I reached the entrance to the crypt, the men had disappeared. I set off alone down a dark alleyway with a shaft of light at the end.

Everything was fine until I saw a monk, fully cowled, at the bottom of the alley with what looked like a large, blunt instrument in his hand. He saw me coming and turned to smile. It's like this when you die, I've been told. Light at the end of a long tunnel with someone there to meet you. I had hoped for more than an old monk.

Following the monk, I saw that the alleyway opened up into a pretty garden. The monk, I discovered, was soldering a piece of metal onto an ornamental fountain. I was about to approach him when I spied the two tourists disappearing into another entrance and, a bit like Alice, I hurried after them.

The entrance turned out to be the ticket hall. I was handed a dog-eared information sheet in English, accompanied by exhortations to take it back when I had finished. By now lots of people were milling around, so I felt safe enough to descend into the vaults.

The letters over one vault arch spelt the gleeful reminder "As you are now, we once were, as we are now, you shall become." I didn't need reminding, so I went into the main vault to find the monks.

They were in a line, 24 in all. As I'd been warned, some of the corpses were contorted, their heads thrown back in skeletal grimaces. Their remaining skin looked like parchment, pulled taut across the bones. Others looked more peaceful. One monk who had lived at the monastery for 50 years lay at peace, clutching a huge crucifix.

The composition of the subsoil and the dry air in the vault has made it possible to mummify the corpses naturally. The monks apparently didn't set out to preserve their dead. It was simply a cheap way to dispose of bodies. Following their vows of poverty, the monks chose to recycle the same coffin. After a service in the church, the body would be carried down to the crypt. There, the coffin's false bottom was slid away and the corpse was left to rest on the ground, gradually drying out.

This practice went on for nearly 300 years until, at the end of the 18th century, Emperor Joseph's new hygiene laws demanded a more final disposal method.

Leaving the main vault, I stayed close to the other tourists. In another vault were townspeople and local dignitaries, laid out on display in glass-topped coffins. Some were extremely well-preserved, but mostly I looked at feet, not faces, and at the remains of clothes, now tomb-blackened, which was shredded across shrivelled knees.

One of the mummies was that of a woman who, according to the information sheet, had been buried alive. In the days of the plague, people were buried as soon as possible and this unfortunate woman was probably buried in a state of deep unconsciousness, waking to find herself sealed in the coffin. Glancing at her contorted shape, I moved swiftly on.

Nearby were the remains of other Brno folk. The town carpenter, and an ostler, as well as a priest who, in 1777, had the good fortune to be called to meet his maker while on a visit to the monastery. Next to the grocer and his wife lay a young acolyte who had dropped dead at the high altar and next to him an ancient noble, Baron Trench.

Trench, commander of the Austrian Pandours, was renowned for cruelty towards his men. However, he bequeathed a considerable amount of property to the Capuchins and wished to be buried in their crypt as simply as the monks. Even in death notoriety dogged him; his thumb was hacked off to make a rosary and his head was stolen in the late 19th century, apparently by English tourists.

I left the vault and handed back the information sheet. While sitting on a wall in the garden, I thought that I would like this method of disposal - left open to the elements, my bones slowly drying out next to those of my friends. Death would become part of life again like in the old days, with parties and anniversary celebrations within view of slowly crumbling loved ones.

* The easiest way to get to Brno by air is probably to buy a flight to Prague with Go (0845 60 54321, www.go-fly.com), which has a cheapest return fare of £90 from London Stansted, and get a train to Brno. Or you could fly to Vienna with Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com), which has a cheapest return fare of £78 from London Stansted, and cross the border into the Czech Republic

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