:::Dons smoking jacket, sits in overstuffed chair looking pompous and important with unlighted pipe because I don’t actually smoke:::
Today, I’d like to talk about ossuaries.
What’s an ossuary? you ask. And well you might. An ossuary is a some kind of container or building used to store the bones of the deceased. Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s thousands, tens of thousands, or more. Why? you ask. Well, for one thing, it takes up a lot less room than separate graves for each person. Something tells me this may yet become a fad in the future.
Probably one of the best known is in the basement the Church of the Bones (actually it’s the Church of All Saints) in Sedlec, outside of Prague in Czech Republic. I’m featuring this one first because I’m obsessed with Prague. Anyway, this is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic, boasting a chandelier made up of every single bone in the human body, and clearly using more than one body. Garlands of skulls are draped from the ceiling (I really need one of those for my Halloween decoration collection…) and four massive piles occupy each of the four corners of the chapel (much larger than the little towers pictured below). This one gets a mention in my vampire novel (SURPRISE!)
It may seem grisly to us, but back in the day people weren’t so squeamish about death, probably because they saw a lot more of it. Young people, healthy people, could be taken quite suddenly. The chapel is estimated to contain between 40,000 – 70,000 skeletons, many of whom were victims of the Black Death. Considering what it’s made out of, I think it’s pretty artistic.
Another well-known ossuary resides in Rome, at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins. It holds the remains of 4,000 friars who died during 1500 – 1870. The Marquis de Sade even visited this one.
These folks had a flair for the theatrical, I’d say. This one is said to have been the inspiration for the Sedlec ossuary. There’s a plaque inside that says “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Indeed, memento mori (Remember you are mortal).
Moving on to Poland, we find the Skull Chapel in Czermna. This is a more recent building, dating to 1776, and is located in Kudowa-Zdrój, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland. It contains 3000 skulls, and the remains of another 21,000 or so. These people were casualties of wars (the Thirty Years War) and three Silesian wars, as well as cholera epidemic victims, and victims of hunger.
Another enormous one, although it doesn’t display the mortal remains of those interred there, is located at the site of the battle of Verdun (21 February 1916 – December 1916), the Douaumont Ossuaire. It contains the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers who fell during this battle that wore on for 300 days and nights. Staggering. The official Web site is here. I can’t find any public domain photos so please visit the links.
One that seems to be unique in that the skulls are elaborately painted, the Karner Bone House (Beinhaus) is located in Hallstatt, Austria. The later additions were decorated even more gaily than the earliest residents.
Yet another type of bone display was used by ancient Mesoamericans, although it was used to hang the skulls of captives and sacrificial victims, known as a tzompantli (from the ancient Aztec language). I think it was the Incans who actually kept the corpses of dead family members, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. I saw a tv program about it many years ago, but can’t find anything online with a quick search.
There are also ossuaries in Spain, the Osario de Santa Maria de Wamba, another in Italy at San Bernadino alle Ossa in Milan, the Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal, a smaller one in Zdislavice, Czech Republic, and the Monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru.