For millennia, people have developed specific traditions in addressing what to do with human remains, often in ways that shock and horrify modern sensibilities. While we may have some experience with ossuaries, such as visiting a Catholic church’s reliquary where saints' remains are stored, or in our travels, many people don’t realize the large scope of ossuaries around the world.
Ossuaries are resting places for human bones, they can be boxes or chests, but the term is most frequently used to describe rooms where bones are openly displayed. Ossuaries can be found in many cultures all over the world, even though they are heavily associated with Orthodox and Catholic communities in the Middle Ages of Europe.
In Jewish tradition, ossuaries were small chests that allowed for the stacking of bones for their secondary interment, after all soft material had decayed from them. These differ from sarcophagi, in that a sarcophagus allows for the full body of the occupant to be laid to rest without any disassemblage. These boxes differ greatly from colloquial understanding of the ossuary, in that the bones were not exposed to the elements or for onlookers to see.
Another ancient example of ossuaries is the “astodan” or “dakhma” of Persian Zoroastrians. Also known as the “Tower of Silence,” these structures were designed to allow human remains to decay in the elements without contaminating valuable soil needed for agriculture. By exposing the remains to the sun, the rain, and scavengers, the bones underwent the decay process without contaminating the three elements Ancient Zoroastrians held sacred: water, earth, and fire. While these structures are more similar to what we refer to as ossuaries in the modern era, they are an important part of our understanding of the ossuary. Though the Zoroastrian community is alive and thriving, the popularity of this practice has declined to the point of only being practiced in a few communities.
Modern understanding of ossuaries requires the bones of many individuals to be displayed, either decoratively or just by sheer volume. Sites like the Catacombes de Paris or “The Church of Bones” in the Czech Republic capture our imagination with the sheer volume of bones contained within them. While the Catacombes de Paris were created as a response to the public health crisis and only arranged artfully at a later date, The Sedlec Ossuary (The Church of Bones) began in response to religious zeal. When an abbot brought back soil from the Holy Land to the grounds, people from the surrounding areas wished to be buried in consecrated ground, resulting in over 40,000 skeletons. Space became an issue in both of these ossuaries, and the artful arrangement and display of them filled a necessary need in the prevention of overcrowding.
Ossuaries can also display the horrors and atrocities of war. In Cambodia, the Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa displays the skulls of over 8000 women, men, and children who were killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. The Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1978 is a recent memory, and the display of these skulls is meant to show the true cost of fascist dictatorship, and the scars it leaves in living memory. Another war memorial ossuary resides in France, the Douaumont Ossuary, which houses the remains of World War I soldiers who died in the battle of Verdun. The bones of this ossuary are not sorted by individual, but left in jumbled heaps, resembling the death that many of these soldiers experienced: senseless, disorganized, and cruel. Over 130,000 soldiers' remains are interred here, some named, many unnamed. On the other side of war-based ossuaries is The Skull Tower of Niš. Created to punish Serbian uprisal by the Turkish warlord, Hurshid Pasha, this structure is made with the piled remains of Serbian rebels from the 1809 Serbian Uprisal against the Ottoman empire. It represents the brute force of the Ottoman empire, but ultimately failed in its purpose of intimidating the Serbians into submission. They rebelled again six years later, this time successfully. The structure was originally constructed with a total of 952 skulls, but when peacetime came, many surviving family members returned to take back the remains of the rebels for proper burial. Now only 58 skulls remain.
While ossuaries can be born from government and institutional need, or from the horrors of war, they can also be born from ineptitude. St. Catherine’s Monastery or The Monastery of The God-Trodden Mount Sinai in the past served as an outpost for monks who had failed to live up to their vows, who were sent to this remote location as punishment. It was soon discovered that the surrounding area was not fit for traditional burial, resulting in the ossuary of piled bones that sits beneath the Chapel of Saint Tryphon.
Ossuaries can also become beautiful tributes to the memories of those interred there. Beinhaus Hallstatt in Austria demonstrates the practice of skull decoration. Many of the skulls in the Hallstatt Charnel are painted with the names or initials of who they belonged to, as well as floral imagery and religious iconography. While most of the painted skulls in the chapel are from individuals who lived during the 19th century, the last skull to be placed in the chapel was that of a woman who died in 1983, and was put to rest there in 1995 in accordance to her last wishes.
All of these ossuaries are important historical places worth researching and visiting. They are only a sampling of all the ossuaries in the world, whose breadth and reasons for existing are as varied and interesting as the lives of the individuals who are interred there. You can learn more about ossuaries with a book from our store!