Exploring the Eerie Underworld of Belgium's Abandoned Crypts

Michele Collet
Michele Collet
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History, August 25, 2011
  • A dark, eerie corridor leading to the resting places of the dead.

    Treading deep underground, Sven Fennema explores the realm of the dead – a place where people were buried long ago. The labyrinthine tunnels of an old, abandoned crypt lie before him, full of mementos, grave plates, and the traces left by those who loved and came to pay their respects to the deceased.

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  • Dripping icicles seep into the dark dank confines of the crypt.

    Do the souls of the long departed also inhabit these subterranean corridors? Ask the man who took these haunting pictures, Sven Fennema, a leading light in urban exploration photography whose work tells the story of this forgotten underworld.

    Fennema was born in 1981 in Xanten and now lives in Krefeld near Duesseldorf in Germany. Since 2007, the art of creative photography has been his passion. He loves exploring lost and abandoned places as he much as he loves modern architecture, and his knowledge of both serves him well.

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  • In these images, Fennema captures the essence of a crypt in a small town in Belgium, conjuring the ghosts of the people who died and those who came to visit as well as the rack and ruin in which it now lies. We can feel the eeriness of this vault, a place abandoned to the skeletons hidden behind the crumbling walls and the spiders that now make it their home. This image of green mold creeping over the concrete above plastic flowers – beside the resting place of a long forgotten body – is a perfect example of the way the photographer captures atmosphere.

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  • A lone chair beside a plaque, as if waiting for a loved one to come and pay their respects to the deceased.

    Crypts have a mood all to themselves at the best of times. They are sad and lonely spaces, especially for those visiting their loved ones. Yet abandoned, they become even more atmospheric, especially for an urban explorer: “The mood of a place creates an overwhelming feeling,” Fennema told us. “And the best example for this would be the old crypt, featured in the second chapter of our book [Anderswelten (Other Worlds)]. I never experienced something like this before. Seeing this unique place with the decaying graves and remains of remembrance – like the old crosses and flowers – was already special, but the rest is hard to describe.”

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  • Light shines in from skylights in another long corridor filled with the remains of the long dead. Water marks and mildew stain the crypt.

    Crypts, of course, are stone burial vaults, most often built below ground, underneath church grounds or beneath the church itself. Some are even constructed on the grounds of private estates, though this particular crypt was part of a church and dates back to the 19th century.

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  • Spiderwebs cover plastic flowers left behind long ago.

    Fennema told us a bit about the history of this crypt: “In the past, when it was built, the crypt was one of the most popular places for underground graves in the country. When it was first expanded, it consisted of star-shaped hallways [when viewed from above] and was made for up to 400 graves. But the upkeep of it grew expensive, and these kinds of tombs became more and more unpopular, so the authorities stopped maintaining it and it was abandoned.”

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  • A fallen flower holder lies on the floor behind a chair for visitors.

    This particular history mirrors what has happened to many crypts in our modern world. They are built increasingly less often, as cremation becomes ever more popular; and while regular cemeteries may remain with us, crypts are dying as places for burying the dead. The expense of crypts is a major consideration given the extra work it costs to build them and maintain them for visitors… This eerie image speaks volumes: how many people sat on this chair grieving for their loved ones?

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  • In black and white, the timelessness of a bygone era is captured.

    History notwithstanding, Fennema cannot help but return to the atmosphere unearthed in the crypt: “There was the sound of dripping water everywhere, which also dropped on us and which gave us goose bumps, together with the silence. The air was very cold and wet, and you could see your every breath – also an experience I will never forget. It was as if death was close beside you somehow. The crypt was full of those strange plastic flowers – still with their bright colors – but it was also full of spiders’ webs and other kinds of decay.”

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  • Withered old leaves line the cracked floor of the crypt.

    The bodies are still entombed in the crypt even though it has been abandoned. Perhaps there were no longer any relatives to come and visit or perhaps the lack of upkeep stopped visitors from coming. Either way, the rot set in.

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  • A decorative finial and picture holders attest to the care this lost place was once given.

    At one time, someone cared for these long dead people, and the reminders of this can arrest the heart and mind, as Fennema explains: “There were the old crosses in front of the graves and other remains like figures and pictures; even some grave plates, already fallen. And then there was that lonely old little chair, perhaps made for past visitors – but for a long time nobody has used it as a seat in which to remember their lost ones. The most fascinating thing can be a direct motif which is just overwhelming, but also simply the mood or history of a place can catch me totally.”

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  • A cracked ceiling above the tombs of the dead add to the sense of desolation in the hall.

    Fennema told us that after many years of abandonment, the crypt has now become too dangerous to access, and the authorities have actually closed up the entrance. One of the last photos Fennema saw of the crypt showed it to be full of half a meter of water.

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  • As you can see from these images, Sven Fennema turns abandonment, decay and ruins into things of beauty. We asked him how he achieved this: “My simple answer would be: The beauty is there, you only have to see it. Abandoned places carry a lot of beauty and many stories; for me it’s important to look at them over time and think about it, then the way I will present them grows in my mind. The natural decay is something unique, and of course another very important matter is the right light and moment, which can make a huge difference. I work with several exposures which I merge manually – my best way to manage the light.”

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  • Fennema not only takes photos; he has also published a book, with a friend, Bjoern Pretzel, called Anderswelten (Other Worlds): “The idea to create a book came to me, together with my friend Björn Pretzel, in mid-2009,” he explains. “I met Björn on a tour in spring 2009 and since then we have gone on most of our tours together. These tours are very special and sometimes unforgettable. It’s not only about taking pictures, but the adventures, stories and special moments.”

    “All this we wanted to gather together to make something really special,” Fennema concludes. “On the one hand, it was about showing a special collection of pictures, but the book also gives some background information and speaks of the overall mood.

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  • A long, sad hallway replete with decay and ruin, with bodies resting in peace behind the walls.

    Fennema explains the process: “We started talks with our publisher, who liked our idea, and immediately we started working on it. After a year involving a lot of work, we finished and were very happy in the end. We are glad we could convince the publisher to produce the book in such high quality so that we can now say it is exactly how we wanted it to be. Now it’s been on the market for a year, and already more than half of our first edition is sold out, which is really a wonderful feeling, telling us that what we did was right.”

    Sven Fennema has a number of series depicting abandoned and lost places that you can see on his website. His superb work has turned heads around the world and caught the attention of urban exploration lovers everywhere. We want to thank him for being kind enough to take the time to answer our questions.

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