At Halloween, people see skeletons — or depictions of human bones — more often than usual.
While these images are meant to be fun, or a bit creepy, depending on a person’s view, human bones can show up in unusual places all year — like they do in some European churches.
There is a long history of unearthing and reburying bones of the dead. In Jesus’ time, mostly due to a desert climate with little ground suitable for long-term burial, bodies were entombed right after death. A year later, families would come to the tomb and remove the bones for reburial. This was common in what is called the “Talmudic Period,” from about 50 to 60 years before Christ’s birth until 500 to 600 years later. Bones were often placed in a stone box, known as an “ossuary.” (The name comes from the Latin word for bone: “os.”)
“The James Ossuary” drew attention to this form of burial in 2002. A first-century stone box was found near Jerusalem. While it was never determined to be real or a fake, this box caused a stir because it bore Aramaic script (the common language of first-century Palestine) that read: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Moving forward in time reveals the St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, founded in the sixth century. It is an Eastern Orthodox monastery about 300 miles to the north of Jerusalem in the Sinai Desert. Monks have been buried there for centuries. However, since they do not have much ground for a traditional cemetery, they have buried their dead for only short intervals. Afterwards, the bones are exhumed and moved to the “charnel house.” (Charnel comes from the Latin carnale for “of the flesh.”) In the monastery’s charnel house, bones have been reverently arranged in groups of skulls and various other bones. Some of the monastic leaders have their full skeletons displayed in open coffins.
Charnel houses — for storage of bones — were common for centuries. Ossuary churches are technically also charnel houses, but they are not usually called that. Even in Europe, where land is more easily found for cemetery burials, space is often at a premium. Here, also, it became common to unearth human burials and place the bones in churches or chapels. Other places for bones included the Paris Municipal Ossuary, dedicated on April 7, 1786. This ossuary is sometimes called the “Catacombs of Paris,” due to a perceived similarity to the catacombs in Rome.
The Paris site was once an old limestone quarry, near the Left Bank of the River Seine. It was abandoned by the 18th century, when the city’s cemeteries became overcrowded with burials on top of burials. Sometimes, older remains were unearthed and tossed over the walls. Then, in the late 1780s, several of Paris’ overcrowded cemeteries collapsed the walls of surrounding buildings during heavy downpours.
The Parisian government finally ordered the city’s cemeteries to be closed and their remains removed to the quarry site — which was then outside the city proper. They started with the largest cemetery, Saints-Innocents, in 1785. For a while, this process was very disorganized, largely due to the French Revolution which started in 1799. However, by 1810, the bones from several cemeteries had been moved.
The catacombs website credits a mining inspector, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, for transforming the site into the attraction it is today. Thury saw to it that the disorganized bones were carefully separated into rows of skulls alternating with long bones for display. The remainder of the bones were stored behind the walls of the public viewing area. The catacombs are currently open to the public, under COVID-19 rules.
The Paris Ossuary, while a resting place of the dead, is not a church. (It should be noted that the Catholic Church does not approve of such displays of human remains in unconsecrated grounds.) However, actual ossuary churches, on consecrated ground, do exist around Europe. These can be found in Austria, Spain and Poland.
One of the most famous of these ossuary churches is the Sedlec Ossuary in the town of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. The Roman Catholic chapel there is believed to have been part of a Cistercian monastery founded in what was then Bohemia in 1142. Its history offers another example of a cemetery becoming overcrowded.
In Sedlec, the reason for overcrowding was that an abbot there traveled to the Holy Land in the 13th century and returned with soil from Golgotha. He spread this in the parish cemetery and, consequently, people began to ask to be buried there because they believed the cemetery was especially blessed. The number increased during the many years of plagues.
So many people were buried there, in fact, that they ran out of room. The cemetery was closed in the late 14th century and the bones moved, around the church itself and into the chapel basement. Nearly 40,000 people had been buried in the cemetery by that time. Fire damaged the church in the late 15th century, so the chapel and its basement became quite disorganized.
Some order was regained thanks to a monk, whom tradition says was visually impaired, working there in 1511. He arranged the bones into large pyramids. About 200 years later, official renovations and repairs began, but were stopped in 1784, when all monasteries were abolished by the government.
In 1870, the Schwarzenberg family came into possession of the church building and gave their master craftsman, František Rint, the task of reorganizing the ossuary. The result is what is now commonly known as the “Church of Bones,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside, and on the entryway, Rint built elaborate structures made from human bones, including a chandelier that is said to contain at least one of every bone found in the human body. His initials and the Schwarzenberg family crest, all in bones, also adorn the chapel.
While ossuaries can sound, and look, macabre, it is good to remember that these bones belonged to people just like us, who lived and prayed as we do. Sedlec’s Church of Bones remains a Catholic chapel. The proper name of the church above the chapel is the Cemetery Church of All Saints. As its website notes, this church is “an expression of human mortality and, at the same time, a belief in the resurrection.”