The enduring popularity of both murder mysteries and true-life crime illustrates the human fascination with death and the macabre. These subjects exert a hold over us that we relish despite our discomfort or even revulsion. The reasons behind our love of the grislier side of life are rooted in our feelings about our own mortality, and many worthy tomes and scientific papers have been written examining this phenomenon. Whatever lies behind it, the demand for books, films, TV shows and other forms of entertainment that draw on this fascination with death shows no sign of diminishing. If you are one of the many who loves these darker experiences, you will probably enjoy visiting one of Europe’s amazing ossuaries, where real human bones are preserved and displayed.
Palermo’s Capuchin catacombs in Sicily are home to a collection of 8,000 bodies, embalmed after death and then put on display. The remains are generally skeletal, but seeing them dressed in their finest clothes for their funerals brings an element of the bizarre to the display. Rome, home of so many historical wonders, has its own ossuary in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione. The bones of over 4,000 Capuchin monks have been used to create artistic displays, in what is intended to be a celebration of life and the importance of living every day to the full.
Portugal and France
Evora’s Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Portugal is constructed entirely from human remains. The crown molding is formed from rows of human skulls, and the walls are packed with ribs and tibias. The chapel was decorated by 16th-century monks when they ran out of room for burials and had to fit 5,000 bodies within the chapel. Possibly the most well-known underground collections of bones are in the Paris Catacombs. The remains of an astonishing six million French citizens are stored in the maze of subterranean chambers, due to a historical lack of burial space above ground, coupled with the practical application of using bodies to help support the abandoned mines that were posing a threat to the stability of the city above.
The Czech Republic is home to a vast collection of around 60,000 skeletons which have been used to decorate the chapel of the Kutna Hora church. The Sedlec Ossuary features skull candelabras and huge bone pyramids amongst its gruesome décor, with a chandelier formed from all the bones of the human skeleton taking center stage. The Brno Ossuary had lain almost forgotten until 2001 when construction excavations began under St Jacob’s Square. The archaeologists brought in to perform routine checks on the area were amazed to find the bodies of 50,000 people, thought to have been dug up and placed in storage in the underground channels to make room in the cemeteries for the newly deceased.
These collections of bones and skeletons may sound morbid and creepy, even if you do have a taste for a good scare, but when you visit an ossuary, you will be struck by how beautiful some of these displays can be, and what a marvel the mind and body of the human being can be.