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Cities of the dead: 7 sinister ossuaries

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Apr - 27 - 2011
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While overgrown cemeteries are mysterious places, with abandoned chapels and tumbling gravestones providing a perfect habitat for plants and animals, ossuaries present a far more forboding environment. All over the world, chapels and churches hide a dark subterranean secret beneath their stone floors, from family vaults to bone-lined cities of the dead. But despite their chilling existence, ossuaries provided an economical solution to the problem of overcrowding. In many cases bodies were buried briefly before relocating to an ossuary, where they could be stacked with other remains in a sort of grizzly storage system that allowed countless human skeletons to be interred in a single tomb. Ossuaries were used by the Zoroastrians in Persia 3,000 years ago, and have been adopted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish faiths, in often decorative displays that bring a whole new meaning to the term “bone structure”.

Chapel of Bones, Evora, Portugal
The Capela dos Ossos, meaning Chapel of Bones, is one of Evora’s most famous monuments – both important historical record and macabre tourist attraction. Built by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century, this hall of death next to the Church of St Francis was built to reflect the transitory nature of life. Above the entrance, a sinister warning roughly translates to: “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.” The inside walls of the church and its eight pillars are “decorated” with the skulls and bones of around 5,000 monks, while two corpses hang by chains from the ceiling. Their identities remain unknown, but legend has it they are an adulterous man and his infant son, cursed by a jealous wife.

Skull Chapel, Czermna, Poland
Built in 1776, the Skull Chapel in Czermna, Poland, was the bizarre brainchild of parish priest Wacław Tomaszek, who saw to it that the bones of 3,000 people came to line the walls of the small baroque church. Beneath its floor is a mass grave containing the remains of another 21,000 people who died during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), or due to cholera and hunger. While those exhumed to create the grizzly interior decorations were never consulted during life, the bones of those that created the sinister sideshow also rest in the Skull Chapel, in a last macabre nod to their “sanctuary of silence”.

San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
While the ossuary in the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan was built for more functional purposes than the deliberately macabre Skull Chapel and Chapel of Bones, it is just as sombre and every bit as decorative. The ossuary dates back to 1210, when an adjacent hospital cemetery became overcrowded and a charnel house was built to hold the bones. A church was attached in 1269 only to be destroyed by fire in 1712, prompting its replacement by a larger church in 1776 in response to the surviving ossuary’s increasing popularity.

A 1695 fresco by Sebastiano Ricci in the ossuary’s vault depicts a “Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels”, and the building even inspired the creation of the Chapel of Bones in Evora (above). So even if it wasn’t built as a macabre sideshow, it has since become one, thanks to centuries of curious tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the faithful departed.

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini,
Rome, Italy
The Capuchin Crypt is a subterranean ossuary beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome. Divided into five chapels, the crypt contains the remains of 4,000 Capuchin friars buried between 1500 and 1870. Soil was brought from Jerusalem and bodies typically spent 30 years decomposing before their bones were exhumed to form a morbidly decorative display. Several intact skeletons draped in Fransciscan habits are dotted around the chambers, which are said to have inspired the Sedlec Ossuary

The Catholic order insists the Capuchin Crypt is a silent reminder of the swift passage of earthly life, rather than a grim tourist attraction. Frommer’s travel guidebook, on the other hand, called it “one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom”. Personal opinions are doubtless divided, but a frank memento mori above the entrance, written in three languages, is undeniable: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
Sedlec Ossuary isn’t just a neatly arranged pile of bones, but bones meticulously fashioned into decorative objects like chandeliers, coats of arms and garlands of skulls. Located in a small Roman Catholic chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, Sedlec is perhaps the most recognisable ossuary in the world, and while it’s up against some stiff competition, also one of the most macabre. When a local abbot named Henry returned from the Holy Land in 1278 with a soil sample from Golgotha, which he sprinkled about the cemetery, Sedlec suddenly became the place to be buried in Central Europe.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, largely due to the Black Death and the Hussite Wars, the cemetery became overcrowded. The chapel beneath the new church (built around 1400) was astablished as an ossuary to allow for more burials in the cemetery, but it wasn’t until 1870 that woodcarver František Rint was employed to create a masterpiece from the antiquated bones. But Rint went further – too far you might say! His work includes an elaborate chandelier containing at least one of every bone in the human body, and his own signature near the entrance – executed in bone, of course. Despite being a Christian church, Sedlec Ossuary inspired the Rob Zombie film House of 1000 Corpses, a work more Satanic than saintly.

Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Peru
The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima not only boasts a world renowned library and a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but also an ossuary within the catacombs beneath the church. Skulls are decoratively arranged in a series of concentric circles separated by other bones. The catacombs are thought to house the remains of up to 70,000 of Lima’s dead, and are also believed to be connected via subterranean passageways to the cathedral and other local churches.

The Douaumont Ossuary, France
Approximately 230,000 men died at the bloody Battle of Verdun in 1916, and the Douaumont ossuary stands as both a memorial to the dead and final resting place for the battle’s unknown soldiers. Those looking in through outside windows will see the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German combatants filling-up the building’s lower alcoves. Plaques on the walls and ceiling bear the names of French soldies who fell at Verdun, while at the top of the tower, a rotating red and white “lantern of death” shines across the battlefield at night.

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