As Halloween approaches, we thought we’d highlight some noted catacombs and ossuaries from around the world. OGR staff member Michael Ryan has had the pleasure of visiting an ossuary and shares history and descriptions of unforgettable locations on this week’s blog.
What are catacombs and ossuaries? Read below!
The term catacomb often brings to mind a nightmarish scene of bones piled upon each other in a dark, dank underground space with some menacing presence lurking in a nearby corner. And let’s be honest; such a description may be true of some – especially if you’ve seen the recent horror flick As Above, So Below set in the catacombs of Paris.
However, a catacomb is nothing more than an ossuary— a depository for the remains of the dead. Ossuaries can be anything from a small box for the bones of one person to a large complex where the bones of thousands of individuals are collected. Typically, such collections are located in buildings, caves, and underground tunnels.
In reality, with rare exceptions, ossuaries are not meant to be macabre or grisly. They were a common practice of Christianity in earlier times– often because of a shortage of cemetery space and as a form of disease confinement. Usually the dead were buried for a time, and then disinterred. Their bones were cleaned and moved to the ossuary.
Dozens of churches and monasteries are famous for being repositories for the bones of thousands of loved ones. In many of the most notable, the bones are arranged in artistic designs, and are often incorporated into the structures themselves – in walls, ceilings, and pillars, both internal and external. Many ossuaries have now become great works of artistic tribute to the past and are visually stunning. They serve as awe-inspiring reminders that our lives are momentary and should be cherished and enjoyed. Several of the ossuaries that are still preserved function as large, museum-like attractions.
Below are some notable examples from around the world:
- Halstatt Charnel House, Hallstatt Austria: I’ve had the opportunity to visit this site, which contains over 1,200 skulls and bones. Over half are decoratively painted with the names of the deceased. The building is surprisingly small and poorly lit, but not scary – even though other visitors tended to speak in whispers and glide surreptitiously behind me. Visiting Halstatt was both enlightening and bizarre.
- Alamo Defenders Ossuary, San Antonio, Texas: Mexican General Santa Ana ordered the bodies of the Texan defenders of the Alamo burned. Although the historical authenticity is debated, it is believed the remains were later collected and placed in the Cathedral of San Fernando de Bexar. Separated from the historic mission site by only half a mile, this ossuary is far less known than the Alamo.
- Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, Rome, Italy: The remains of over 4,000 Capuchin friars are displayed in artistic arrangements – some in their order robes, others disassembled. In 1775, the Marquis de Sade wrote of it, “I have never seen anything more striking.” A sign in the chapel contains a message in three languages to visitors – “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” If there were ever a profound statement uttered, it is this one.
- Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa, Cambodia: In the 1970’s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed nearly a quarter of the 8 million population of Cambodia. Many were buried in mass graves in what became known as “the killing fields.” The skulls of 5,000 victims are displayed in layers within a glass enclosure so the atrocities will not be forgotten.
- Chapel of Skulls, Poland: The bones of 21,000 people are stored in an underground crypt. Another 3,000 skulls and related bones decorate the chapel of the “sanctuary of silence”.
- Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic: This ossuary contains the remains of over 40,000. Its decorative elements include a chandelier made from at least one of every bone in the human body. Enlightening!
- Brno Catacombs, Czech Republic: Remains of up to 50,000 individuals were discovered in 2001 during a construction project. It is believed to be the second largest catacomb in Europe, behind only Paris.
- Convento de San Francisco, Lima, Peru: An estimated 70,000 skeletons are decoratively arranged in the basement of this Franciscan monastery in South America.
- Douaumont Ossuary, Verdun France: This building houses the jumbled bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers killed during the year-long battle of Verdun during the first World War.
- Catacombs of Paris, France: These catacombs may hold up to 7 million former Parisians in 200 miles of tunnels within former limestone quarries. Entry to the catacombs is controlled and most sections are restricted. But when did that ever stop people? One website conveys, “In 2004… The police descended deeper into the tunnels and discovered a 400 square meter cavern with a fully equipped cinema. It included a giant cinema screen, projection equipment, chairs and a handful of films, from film noir classics to recent thrillers. Someone had turned this abandoned underground cavern into a secret amphitheater.” Movie night, anyone?
More significant ossuaries exist in Italy, England, Portugal, Mexico, Germany, Egypt, Ukraine and other countries. Have you ever visited an ossuary? Are there any we’re missing from our list?
By Michael Ryan