Ossuaries, Catacombs and Charnel Houses – crypts, chapels and caverns where human bones have been placed – are spread throughout Europe. Some are many hundreds of years old, others much more recent. As macabre as the idea may sound they are also a popular tourist attraction; the Catacombs in Paris are perhaps the most well known and receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Not for the feint hearted, and probably many children, the following is a list of ten of the more interesting ossuaries open to the public around Europe.
An ossuary is anything from a small box to a large building that contains human bones. A body is placed in a temporary grave, and then sometime later the bones are removed, cleaned and placed in the ossuary – the final resting place. In many instances ossuaries were created as a solution to the lack of space in local cemeteries. Others, however, came about when human remains were recovered during the excavation of cemeteries – whether known or forgotten.
Ossuaries have a long history. The megalithic chambered tombs of the Neolithic and Bronze Age are in all likelihood prehistoric antecedents of the more recent traditions we see in Europe. Three thousand years ago the ancient Persians, more specifically the Zoroastrians, placed the remains of their dead in a well or astudan – a literal translation being ‘the place for the bones’. More recently, an elderly Austrian woman who died in 1983 was placed in Hallstatt’s Beinhaus in 1995. It was her last wish to be placed alongside her peers in the 12th century ossuary.
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Ossuaries are found throughout Europe, having been a common practice for both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities. There are chapels and crypts in churches and monasteries that house the bones of thousands of individuals. Caves, catacombs and underground tunnels also make for ideal ossuaries. People were interred as and when when they died, whereas some ossuaries are a kid of ‘mass grave’, holding the bones of thousands of individuals who died a a result of anything from plagues to wars.
The following ten sites demonstrate just how varied ossuaries in Europe are. Today, some may seem bizarre to us, others are quite poignant. But they all give a fascinating glimpse into the changing attitudes and traditions that surrounds death and burial through the ages.
The Catacombs of Paris, France
Beneath the streets of certain parts of Paris is an enormous network of underground tunnels. The tunnels were dug since the Roman era, and it is from here that much of the stone used to build Paris comes from. Once beyond the city limits, as Paris expanded these underground tunnels began to present structural issues for the buildings being constructed above.
Towards the end of the 18th century the tunnels, many of which had long since been forgotten about, began to be mapped and reinforced. This was around the same time that the cemeteries that the cemeteries were closed because it was thought they were a public risk. The network of tunnels presented an obvious solution, and so bones were transferred from the cemeteries to the tunnels. At first parts of the tunnels were used as a repository for bones. By 1810 they were transformed into a mausoleum, where the bones were neatly arranged for visitors. By the end of the 19th century the ossuary was opened to the public on a regular basis and ‘the catacombs’ became a popular Parisian attraction. Some estimate that the remains of six million people have been interred here.
Visiting the Catacombs of Paris, France: with the exception of a few national holidays spread out through the year, the underground ossuary is open all year round, and there is an admission fee … More Information.
Brno Catacombs, Brno, Czech Republic
The underground ossuary in the historical city centre of Brno beneath the Church of St James was rediscovered not that long ago, in 2001. It is thought that the first human bones were interred here in the 17th century. There is evidence that the ossuary was greatly expanded during the 18th century. By the time it was sealed off, estimates suggest that all told the remains of 50,000 individuals lay here. This makes the Brno Catacombs the second largest in Europe, after the Paris Catacombs.
Visiting the Catacombs of Brno: the underground ossuary has been open to the public since 2012. It is open throughout the year, but closed on Mondays. There is an admission charge … More Information.
San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
When a hospital cemetery in Milan ran out of space for new burials, a chamber was built in 1210 to hold the bones exhumed from older burials. A few decades later a church was built attached to the ossuary. The church was modified in 1769 and the walls of the ossuary were ‘decorated’ with skulls and long bones.
Visiting the San Bernardino alle Ossa: the Chapel of Bones in San Bernardino is open each day (opening hours vary daily) except Sunday … More Information.
Capela dos Ossos, Évora, Portugal
The historic centre of Évora is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. An important Roman town that in the 15th century became the official residence of Portuguese kings. And it was King John V who was so taken by the chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan that he had a similar one built in Évora.
Visiting the Chapel of Bones in Évora: the chapel is open to the public each day, but visits are restricted to 15 minutes and there is a small admissio charge … More Information.
The Beinhaus, Hallstatt, Austria
The scenic lakeside town of Hallstatt, known in archaeological circles as the location for the typesite of the Hallstatt Iron Age culture, is home to a ‘bone house’ that dates back to the 12th century. But this particular ossuary has a rather creative twist. A very specific tradition that started in 1720 when it became all to obvious that space in the cemetery was limited.
Ten or so years after initial burial skulls are removed, cleaned and exposed to the sun for several weeks to bleach the bone. Then, just as the grave is decorated with flowers, so the skulls are painted with a crown of flowers. Each skull has the date of the deceased written on it and the it is placed in rows alongside the next of kin. The last skull added to the ossuary in 1995, on the wishes of the deceased woman who died in 1983.
Visiting the Beinhaus: the Bone House in Hallstatt is usually open from the beginning of April to the end of October, there is a small admission fee … More Information.
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
Beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the Kutná Hora suburb of Sedlec is a chapel known as the Sedlec Ossuary, which is one of the most visited attractions in the Czech Republic. Although it is difficult to be precise, it is thought that there are the remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals. In a twist that some find quite bizarre, the bones are used to decorate the chapel’s various furnishings. A frequently photographed chandelier, for example, contains at least one of every bone in the human body. The chandelier hangs from the centre of the nave, which has garlands of skulls draping the vault.
Visiting the Sedlec Ossuary: the chapel is open throughout the year, except for Christmas Eve, and there is an admission charge … More Information.
Goldene Kammer, Basilica of St. Ursula, Cologne, Germany
The Basilica of St. Ursula is dedicated to St Ursula and her followers – 11,000 virgins, who were all said to have been martyred in Cologne by the Huns. Proof of this legend was provided on each occasion building work required any excavation in the grounds. Because the church had been built on top of a Roman cemetery, each time the ground was disturbed human bones were unearthed. And these were interpreted at the remains of the 11,000 virgins. In fact, an older version of the legend claims that St Ursula was accompanied by 11 virgins, but this number increased over time – probably as a result of the number of human remains being unearthed from the churchyard.
When in the 13th century the church’s choir was being rebuilt, the number of bones unearthed was so large a solution was was required. Ad so the ‘Goldene Kammer’ was built, with the walls decorated by with the bones. Bones have even been arranged to spell out words in Latin. Anyone visiting the chamber will realise there are more than 11 individuals represented, and apparently there are far fewer than 11,000.
Visiting the Golden Chamber: the Basilica of St. Ursula is open to the public, as is the Goldene Kammer … More Information.
The Crypt, St Leonards Church, Hythe, England
The earliest recorded mention of the collection of human bones at St Leonard’s is 1678. Back then the Town Clerk of nearby Rye writes of “an orderly pile of dead men’s bones in the charnel house” – a vault or building used to store human bones. In fact, that pile of bones is made up of four arched and shelved bays holding 1,022 skulls and a single stack of bones and skulls that measures 7.5 metres in length, 1.8 metres in width and just over 1.8m high. This is the largest collection of human bones, and also the best preserved, in Britain.
Not surprisingly, these bones have long been the subject of much speculation. Some fancied they were the trophy remains of slain Danish pirates, while others believed them to be the remains of men fallen in the Battle of Hastings. There is no real evidence for any of these ideas. Recent research has shown that there are more women and juveniles represented, and very few of the heads have what could be interpreted as battle wounds.
A far more mundane interpretation is now accepted. Extensions to the church in the 13th century, encroached on the church graveyard. The human remains would have been collected and stored respectfully in the church. This alone would not account for the estimated minimum number of 4,000 individuals. Perhaps the local collection was added to by the remains of people buried in four other graveyards in the area, which were closed around 1500.
Visiting the St Leonard’s Crypt: the ossuary in Hythe, one of only two ossuaries in England, is open each year during the summer months from the beginning of May … More Information.
St Bride’s Crypt, London, England
The Church of St Bride was destroyed by bombs that fell on London during World War Two. During excavations in 1953 required for the rebuilding of the church, archaeological discoveries revealed a history that goes back some 2,000 years. Besides the Roman remains dating back to the first century AD, the crypts were found to contain the remains of thousands of humans. These are thought to be the bones of those who died in the Great Plague of 1665 and the cholera epidemic of 1854. After the 1854 epidemic, no more burials were allowed in the City of London, and so the crypts were sealed and forgotten about.
After careful excavations and thorough analysis of the human remains, two distinct sets of bones were identified. One comprises the remains of over two hundred individuals, whose age and gender has been determined, while the other is a collection of over 7,000 human bones that had been neatly placed in what was a Medieval charnel house – a vault or building used to store human bones. Archaeologists believe that this charnel house was created for these bones because space in the city cemeteries was limited.
What is particularly interesting about these human remains is their placement in the ossuary. As is typical of ossuaries and charnel houses, bones are sorted into types, skulls, long bones, etc., and these are kept together in groups. In the crypts of St Brides, the long bones were laid out and piled high in a chequered-board pattern.
Visiting St Bride’s Crypt: it is only possible to see the Fleet Street Ossuary on a guided tour, these are run by the church and take place once a week … More Information.
Douaumont Ossuary, Verdun, France
Perhaps one of the most poignant ossuaries in Europe is the Douaumont Ossary in north eastern France. Situated on what was the battlefield of the World War One Battle of Verdun and next to the largest French military cemetery relating to the first World War, the ossuary holds the remains of both French and German soldiers who fought in that horrific battle.
From 21 February to 19 December in 1916 over 230,000 French and German men died in what has been called L’Enfer de Verdun (Hell of Verdun). The bones from at least 130,000 unidentified soldiers have been placed in specially designed alcoves. Their names have been inscribed on the walls and vaulted ceiling of the ossuary. The adjacent cemetery has the identified remains of 16,142 French men. L’ossuaire de Douaumont was inaugurated by French President Albert Lebrun on 7 August in 1932.
Visiting the Douaumont Ossuary: the ossuary is open all year round, except for the entire month of January, there is a admission fee.