In many places around Europe, as well as around the world, there are parts of churches or tunnels underground where skeletons are kept. In some of them, the skeletons are just stacked up, but in some places they have decorated the walls and the ceilings with the bones, put up in patterns.
Different countries have different ways of doing this. The main reason for the bonehouses, or ossuaries, is to make space for the newly dead. Sometimes cemeteries would become so full that there was no space anymore, and there would be no other option than to replace the skeletons. To do this in a respectful way, a lot of churches created unique spaces for the remains, which you can visit most of them nowadays.
1. Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
Sedlec Ossuary, also known as ‘the Bone Church’ dates back to the 13th century. It looks like a regular church from the outside, but once you walk in you will be greeted by candles that glow from skulls, and you can’t look anywhere without seeing art made out of human bones.
A local abbot brought some sacral soil from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 13th century and spread it around the church cemetery. People found out about it, and the cemetery became one of the most popular places to be buried. Then the plague hit Europe in the 14th century, and the cemetery became full.
When in the next century the community decided to reconstruct the church, bones had to be moved and they were stacked in pyramids. In 1870 the church hired woodcarver Francis Rint, who created chains, crosses and even a chandelier out of bones.
2. Catacombs, France
Probably the most famous one on the list are the Catacombs, the place that holds the remains of six to seven million inhabitants of Paris. In the late 18th century, cemeteries became overpopulated which led to unpleasant circumstances: open graves, unearthed corpses and people that lived around the cemeteries that would get sick because of the unhealthy conditions.
The solution for this was replacing the bones to empty tunnels.
Because some parts of the Catacombs are unsafe, only a part of the tunnels is open to the public, but since the tunnels are about 300 kilometres in total, it is difficult for the city to keep people from entering the network. In 2004 the police discovered a hidden chamber in the Catacombs. They found a cinema, a bar, a whole electricity system, a dining room and three phone lines. The society that arranged all of this would even organise festivals in the tunnels. When the police hired some experts to find out where the electricity was coming from, the cables were cut and there was a note on the floor saying ‘‘do not try to find us’’.
3. The painted skulls of Hallstatt, Austria
From this picturesque town located at a blue lake in the mountains, you would not expect that there is a house that is filled with hundreds of painted skulls. The Charnel House is a small building that contains over 1200 of them, for similar reasons as the bonehouses mentioned above: there was no space anymore for burying people, so the church had to dig up corpses.
In 1720 the people of Hallstatt came up with an idea: painting the skulls of their family members with decorations, names and dates of birth, to remember them forever. Technically inhabitants of Hallstatt can still choose to be placed here, although the last skull that was added here was placed in 1995 (of a woman that passed away in 1983).
4. The bejewelled skeletons of Waldsassen Basilica, Germany
In the Waldsassen Basilica you will find something you don’t see in any basilica: halls that are lined with skeletons of Christian martyrs that were removed from the catacombs in Rome, dressed up in clothes and covered in jewels. They are known as the ‘Holy Bodies’ and they are celebrated every year during the Holy-body-fest.
Curious about other frightful fun? All over Europe there seems to be mischief afoot:
5. The well-dressed mummies in Capuchin Monastery, Italy
Here in Palermo, the catacombs are filled with mummies, but unlike other bonehouses, they are dressed up. Pinned to the walls, sitting on the benches and put in open coffins: there are 8000 skeletons all separated in different rooms, dressed up in the clothes of the time they died in. There is a section for women, for children, virgins, men, and men with specific professions such as doctors and soldiers.
6. The Bone Chapel, Portugal
This chapel in Faro was constructed from bones of over a 1000 monks… When looking around, you will see that every single part of the chapel is covered with bones and skulls. The ceiling, the walls and even a basin that is situated in the chapel is covered in the remains of the monks.
Completed in 1816, it was a special way of respecting the monks that had passed. On a sign in the chapel, it says the following: ‘Stop and consider that this state will befall us all’. A confronting message that might make you think about death from a different perspective.
7. Wamba Ossuary, Spain
One of the largest ossuaries in the country of Spain is Wamba Ossuary. In the Santa Maria Church, the skeletons of thousands of villagers and monks are presented. The bones here are from people that died between the 12th and 18th centuries.
The reason for stacking the bones in this place was again, because there was a lack of space in the cemetery. A sign above the ossuary reads: “As you see yourself, I saw myself too. As you see me, you will see yourself. Everything ends in this. Think about it and you won’t fall into sin.”
8. The Mummies of St. Michan’s, Ireland
In this church in Ireland the basement is full of mummies. The reason the bodies in here are mummified is not quite clear, some say it is because the basement holds limestone, making the air in here dry. Another theory is that the land where the church was built on was swamp and that the methane gas serves as a preservative for the bodies. Not only does it affect the bodies, but also the coffins: the wood breaks down which makes the mummies reveal themselves…
There are a couple of mummies that are known as the ‘big four’ and are visible because their coffins don’t have a lid anymore. There is a woman who is called ‘the Unknown’, one known as ‘the Thief’, one that is known as ‘the Nun’ and the fourth mummy is named ‘the Crusader’. Of the Crusader, who is about 800 years old, they believe he was a soldier that returned from a crusade and shortly after passed away. For its time the Crusader was quite tall: 1,98 metres. Because he didn’t fit in the coffin, they had to break up his legs and fold them under him. His hand extends a bit out of the casket, and there was a time visitors were brave enough to give him a handshake.
9. The Chapel of Skulls: Kaplica Czaszek, Poland
There are thousands of skulls that decorate the walls and the ceilings in this chapel in Poland, with 21.000 skeletons below the church. The Czech priest Vaclav Tomasek and the local grave digger J. Langer collected all the bones. It took them 18 years to collect, clean and arrange them.
10. The Holy Trinity Church, England
In Rothwell, England there is a crypt under the church which the people didn’t know about until a gravedigger fell into it. This was quite a shock for the gravedigger, as he fell on top of all the bones, 3,5 metres deep, in the dark. This affected him until the day he died. The bones were not organised at this point, but now the skulls are displayed so visitors can view them.
11. Évora’s Chapel of Bones, Portugal
The big Royal Church of St. Francis has a smaller chapel that is decorated with bones of people that were buried in one of the forty-three cemeteries around Évora. Because the cemeteries were taking up valuable land, they had to dig up the graves, but decided to build a chapel for it. On one of the pillars hangs the following poem, which is supposed to explain the purpose of this chapel:
“Where are you going in such a hurry traveler? Pause… do not advance your travel; You have no greater concern than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world, Reflect on your similar end, There is good reason to reflect If only all did the same.
Ponder, you so influenced by fate, Among all the many concerns of the world, So little do you reflect on death;
If by chance you glance at this place, Stop… for the sake of your journey, The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.”
12. The bejewelled skeleton of St. Notburga, Austria
Born in 1265 AD, St. Notburga cared for the poor and the ill all her life. As a maid of Henry I of Rottenburg, she would give leftovers to the poor people. When Henry I started to forbid this, she didn’t eat anything for a week and gave all her food away. Today her skeleton is displayed in the church of Maurach, and quite different from the other places that are listed in this article. She is the only person displayed here in this church, dressed up and decorated.