Around the World in Ossuaries


:::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.

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13 thoughts on “Around the World in Ossuaries

  1. Digital Dame says:

    Hahah, I thought it was perfectly in keeping with my typically macabre themes around here 🙂 Maybe I should resurrect my raven mascot.

    Actually, someone on Twitter (Kat Aubry, @carnivalerian) tweeted about the Capuchin chapel in Rome, and since I’d never heard of it before, I naturally went looking for more info and one thing lead to another… And as I mentioned the Bone Chapel outside Prague is a setting for a scene in the vampire novel. I need some night shots of that one. I really need to go to Prague.

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  2. gypsyscarlett says:

    *takes the pipe from DD and gives to self.* Why let it go to waste? 😉

    Fabulous post!

    Memento Mori, indeed. I don’t think about death for morbid reasons. Just the opposite. Remembering we are mortal, reminds me to live life to the fullest, and not sweat the silly, little things.

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  3. startingoveringermany says:

    Oh wow, this was an interesting read. I knew of a few churches having remaining in the basemen but I did not know of some of the extreme. We have a church here not far away that found body of bones during building and they did not move it. Instead it is part of the tour my neighbor mentioned to me way back. I have not went on the tour yet to see with my own eyes how they display it though.

    In Jamaica some of the funerals are held that way. Only some. Bodies are bury above bodies.

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  4. Digital Dame says:

    Welcome back, Lora! 🙂 Hope you had a nice vacation.

    There are lots of churches with crypts and catacombs, but not as many that make displays like these. I’ve known about the one outside Prague for a long time, but most of the rest were new to me.

    Like

  5. startingoveringermany says:

    Thank you, good to be back in a way.
    Time with my family went too quick for me. My mother asked for next year for me to stay two months. John said no way one month was way too long for him plus he was bored, lol.

    When ever you make plans to go to Prague I would really like to meet up with you. Heck I am sure you will know all the intriguing place to visit!

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