Ossuaries: Walls of Bones

01Sep09

Picture 1-126An ossuary is a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is.

Many examples of ossuaries are found within Europe such as the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, Italy, the San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy, the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, and Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of bones) in the city of Évora, in Portugal. The village of Wamba in the province of Valladolid, Spain has an impressive ossuary of over a thousand skulls inside the local church, dating from between the 12th and the 18th centuries.

Sedlicossuary6-1.JpgWhile the idea of an ossuary makes some individuals squeamish, ossuaries have been a part of human life for thousands of years. Some early humans exhumed and moved their dead after a set period of time had elapsed. Some cultures carried their dead with them in portable ossuaries or slings, because they believed that this would make the spirits of the dead more accessible. The construction of solid crypt-like ossuaries has been carried on for centuries, with several fine examples scattered around Europe (as is obvious from the image gallery below).

In the Catholic Church, an ossuary is used to house the relics of saints, and many deeply religious individuals make pilgrimages to the site of ossuaries so that they can look on the remains of saints and other individuals sacred to the church. The Zoroastrian religion also incorporated the use of ossuaries for skeletonizes bone, throwing the bones into a large well. The custom of exhumation and interment in an ossuary used to be a part of Jewish tradition as well, due to limited cemetery space. Some religions, such as Islam, have never had a tradition of exhumation, and the practice is forbidden to Muslims.

Image Gallery

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini was designed by Antonio Casoni and built between 1626 and 1631. It comprises a small nave and several side chapels. The chapels are notable as one contains the body of St. Felix of Cantalice and another is the tomb of the Blessed Crispin of Viterbo. The church is most famous as an ossuary, known as the Capuchin Crypt, in which is displayed the bones of over 4,000 Capuchin friars, collected between the years of 1528 and 1870. The bones are fashioned into decorative displays in the Baroque and Rococo style.

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Sedlec Ossuary

The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, many of whom have had their bones artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. [Image Source]

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Bones Chandelier

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San Bernardino alle Ossa

San Bernardino alle Ossa is a church in Milan, northern Italy, best known for its ossuary, a small side chapel decorated with numerous human skulls and bones. In 1210, when an adjacent cemetery ran out of space, a room was built to hold bones. A church was attached in 1269. Renovated in 1679, it was destroyed by a fire in 1712. A new bigger church was then attached to the older one and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena. Niches and doors are decorated with bones, in Roccoco style.

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800Px-Img 5802 - Milano - Ossario Di San Bernardino Alle Ossa - Teschi Dei Giustiziati - Foto Giovanni Dall'orto - 17 Febr. 2007

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Paris Catacombs

The Catacombs of Paris are a famous underground ossuary in Paris, France. During the 18th century, the growing population of Paris resulted in the saturation of existing cemeteries, raising public health concerns. Towards the end of the 18th century, it was decided to create three new large cemeteries and to condemn the existing cemeteries within the city limits. Remains were progressively moved to a renovated section of the abandoned mines beneath Paris that would eventually become a full-fledged ossuary. The entrance is located on present day Place Denfert-Rochereau.

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44 Responses to “Ossuaries: Walls of Bones”

  1. 1 Megan

    They’re beautiful and creepy at the same time.

    • They are. What I find creepiest is to realize that every skull there was once in a person’s head and laughed and cried and had a family and friends. I bet they never thought they would end up on display like that!

  2. 3 Looser

    terrifying and fascinating. how wonderfully… macabre

    • Of course – my favorite subject 🙂

      • 5 Looser

        haha ive noticed that!

  3. 6 anniegirl

    These are now on my list for the next time I travel around Europe!

  4. 7 shaymm

    Awesome and creepy. This is great. If these are posted at the same time that they have been recently, I can read this before I go to bed and Listverse when I wake up. Oh, and I do have a life I just like to read a lot…lol

    • Ah – I haven’t decided on timing yet – I was considering posting them both at the same time – with maybe just an hours difference.

  5. 9 Kejrn

    beautiful

  6. Re: Paris Catacombs…
    Can you imagine living in the late 18th century next to the Cimetière des Innocents, where the cemetery was so full, the walls had fallen down, decomposing corpses were literally falling into the street, and the very ground had become so poisonous, it was a danger to the living. The smell must have been horrific!
    Didn’t I read somewhere the earliest (1785) transfers took place at in the middle of the night, with carts heaped full of bones rumbling through the streets of Paris while the citizens slept?

    • That sounds fantastic – I feel another article coming on 🙂

  7. I can strongly recommend the catacombs of Paris. I went there with my family years back and i stille remember it very vividly:

    First you walk down some stairs into what i remember as being the old sewer-system – very narrow tunnels. Then you reach a gate with a sign above it: “Arette! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!” (stop! this is the empire of the dead.) And then: bones… Bones and bones and bones stacked all the way to the celing! Piles of bones that haven’t been sorted. Just tunnels and bones – kind of freaky! Upon leaving the catacombs – after climbing a narrow flight of stairs back to the land of the living – someone will check your backpack. Just in case you have supplied yourself with a souvenir from the empire of the dead!

    Try it, if you get the chance!

    OmmeLise

    • try taking a souvenir or try visiting? 🙂 You can buy real human skulls for around 600 US on the Internet – I definitely plan to buy one.

      • Try visiting. I don’t recommend stealing other peoples body parts 😉

        While my friend was studing as an occupational therapist she had half a skeleton in a box under her bed – lent to her by the school for anatomy reference. I think she called him Kurt.

        I have considered bying a scull-replica as i am an illustrator and it would come in handy for anatomy drawing. But i never thought of buying a real one… Hmmmm…

        OmmeLise

        • I just checked the latest prices – skulls are up 50 bucks to 700 for one with half its teeth missing. If you want a good price – buy one now!

          • Thanks for the tip, but a probably can’t get a human skull through costoms an into Denmark anyway 🙂 I guess i’ll just have to settle with a replica.

            OmmeLise

  8. 17 columbofan

    That would be such a wierd and creepy job to sort all those bones out. I wonder how the bones hold together in the Sedlec Ossuary.

    • Weird job yes – but how awesome on a night out to tell people you organise human bones for a living!

      • The artistic work in the Sedluc Ossuary was done around 1870 by a wood carver, František Rint, who was hired for the job. i would imagine he used the same technique as an articulator (a person who specialized in wiring together human skeletons for medical schools and doctors).

  9. 20 Zenayda

    I’d only heard of Sedlec and the Parisian catacombs before this so it’s really cool to hear of other ossuaries. As a huge ‘fan’ of death and the macabre, this kind of article is definitely my thing.

    • then look out for more – because it is my kind of thing too! 🙂

  10. 22 googlebeeohmi

    There is something very beautiful about these pictures, creepy but beautiful. It reminds me of something that I think I saw back when I was in Paris when I was nine (we went to the catacombs but for the life of me I can not remember what I saw or what I have gleaned from other sources)

    This sort of macabre information and pictures has always fascinated me … so I would have to say your newest list on listverse is one of the most interesting. That might also be because when I was younger the most interesting articles in the National Geographics my father got were the ones with tombs and burial grounds, things like that.

  11. 23 Mrfakz

    No dogs allowed !

    • hahah

  12. 25 LessDeadMeg

    I am going to Rome and Palermo in less than a month! I will definitely visiting both ossuaries. Thank you so much for this information! I had no idea until just now!

  13. 26 appie

    tzk!freaky and creepy,.I never had a chance to see the real thing,.I only see these things in pictures and TV and I don’t wish to see all these,..kinda scared to encounter one,.eww!

  14. 27 leo

    i was at the Rome Capuchin Crypt not 3 weeks ago.. I had to go twice it was so crazy.. Theres a lot of arty stuff going on in there, for instance the hourglass above some monks in the first pictures has one half dark and one half white, showing sin being washed away with time.. The clocks all had 6 numbers but i forgot what that means now (was eavesdropping a tourguide)

    • wow luck you for having been! I wish I had known about it when I was in Rome – I would definitely have gone.

  15. 29 Cj

    Love the new site. I’m from Ireland and listverse was recommended by a friend. I find myself checking it now on my iPhone at 3pm cause I can’t sleep (gmt time). The new sites brilliant as it’s a bit more indepth.

    I find it really surreal that all those bodies ended up being used in that way. Did the families have any say? (especially those used in chandeliers)

    Well it’s 2.29 in the isle of rain and green so I’m of to bed. Going to see Muriel Day tomorrow at her single launch. (She was Irelands first female rep back in 1969 and amazingly she works with me but is getting back on the music scene) crazy given that she supported Dusty Springfield and play for old Hugh Heffer!

    You should do alist on that! Famous people and where they are now. (although you may possibly have)

    good night world. 2.36am 4.9.09

  16. 30 Cj

    Ha thank my iPhone for accuracy 4.9.09 my arse! I’m gonna start using the stars and a sun dial. Far more accurate lol.

  17. 31 imcrystalclear

    Jfrater, I agree with you. I can’t help but think that each skull represents a once living being, not to mention all the bones used.

    These are beautiful to look at, but creepy all the same.

  18. 32 Jenna

    I think I kind of like this idea. Rather than rotting in the dark for all eternity or being reduced to ash in a crematorium, something beautiful and facinating is created from your remains. Yes, I think I really like this idea…

  19. 33 Shi

    Wow…those are some of the most intensely macarbe things I have ever seen. I didnt know there was such a thing but I really want to go and see them now!

  20. 34 empresszien

    wow! creepy but beautiful. 🙂

  21. 35 Firefly

    I was in Prague about 5 years ago and I found out about Sedlec the day before I left. I was sickened that I missed it, even more so now that I’ve seen the pictures. I plan to go back hopefully next year to see it. My boyfriend’s sister went to the one in Rome, she has some amazing pictures of it.

  22. 36 Matcka

    hi J!
    have been a fan of yours for ages… on the site i post regulary everyone is constantly asking me to post everything bizarre and macabre so you are an awesome insperation!
    Keep up the good work
    Respect!!!!!

  23. 37 tarson

    Bones bones bones.
    Why waste this natural resource?
    It is a criminal waste for farmers. the bones should be grinded up and used for making food not dirty snuff death movies.

  24. 38 AzrialM

    Oddly beautiful and fascinating, yet creepy.

    I know this sounds dorky, but now I know where Castlevania got a lot of its inspiration for some catacomb scenes. I feel enriched knowing these actually existed.

  25. This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.

  26. 40 raz

    there’s one in evora, portugal – not as flashy but definitely worth the trip!

  27. 41 ???QUESTION???

    I find this kinda screwed up to the next level!!! :O

  28. 42 SFinSF

    Thank you for this site. I did my Master’s degree research on burial in medieval Ireland (social history) in the early 90s and during that time, visited the Capuchin church in Rome some years ago. Being from the western U.S., where land for cemeteries hasn’t historically been a concern, the ossuary tradition was new to me and — of course — seemed very creepy. My views about what was “odd” and what was part of a very ancient tradition changed radically in the course of my research. Having never been to Paris, I was unaware of the famous ossuary there (which is not medieval!) until seeing the exhibition on Paris currently residing at one of our fine arts museums. It is very interested to see “the wall” — as there are a couple of mentions of ossuaries in cemeteries in Ireland in sources between 900-1500 — but there is a reference from the mid 1800s in a travel journal of “a wall of bones and skulls” — and the photos of the Parisian ossuary give me some idea of how that might have looked. Certainly, this would have been a VERY ancient practice in the 1700s.

  29. 43 cindy

    Oh I love it. Awesome pictures. I’m so thrilled to know I’m not the only one that takes pictures like this. I like to show them to my friends and just wait for the facial expressions usually with my camera in hand.

  30. 44 sofibebe

    Picture number 3 under San Bernardino alle Ossa is actually from Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal.


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