An ossuary can be described as a chest, box or building that functions as the final resting place of human skeletal remains where burial space is often scarce.
A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is.
1. Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
The Sedlec Ossuary is found beneath the cemetery church of All Saints in the Czech Republic in Sedlec. The site is estimated to contain the human remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have in many cases been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. Four enormous bell shaped mounds occupy the chapel corners, with a chandelier of bones containing at least one of every bone in the human body.
2. Capuchin Crypt, Rome, Italy
The Capuchin Crypt is located under the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins which is a church built in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII. The bones were exhumed from the friary at Via dei Lucchesi under the orders of the Cardinal Antonio Barberini and were arranged along the walls in decorative displays in the Baroque and Rococo style. It is believed that the remains of some 4,000 friars are buried here, between 1500 and 1870, during which time the Roman Catholic Church permitted burial in and under churches.
3. Brno Ossuary, Brno, Czech Republic
The Brno Ossuary is located in Brno in the Czech Republic under the Church of St James. Founded in the 17th century, it was later expanded into the 18th century, it is estimated that the ossuary holds the remains of over 50 thousand people which makes it the second-largest ossuary in Europe. The site was discovered in 2001 during a routine exploratory archaeological dig on a construction project in the city centre.
4. Capela dos Ossos, Evora, Portugal
Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary in Évora, Portugal, located next to the entrance of the Church of St. Francis. The Capela dos Ossos was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk who, in the Counter-Reformation spirit of that era, wanted to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation and transmit the message of life being transitory. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming from the cemeteries that were situated inside several dozen churches.
5. Skull Chapel, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland
The Skull Chapel of St. Bartholomews church is located in Kudowa-Zdrój in Poland. Built-in 1776 by the local parish priest, it is the mass grave of those who died during the 30 years war (1618–1648), the three Silesian Wars (1740–1763), in addition to the unfortunate who died because of cholera epidemics, plague, syphilis, and hunger. The walls are adorned with three thousand skulls, with a further 21 thousand people interred in the basement.
6. Paris Catacombs
The Catacombs of Paris or Catacombes de Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France. Located south of the former city gate at Place Denfert-Rochereau, the ossuaries hold the remains of some six million people that fill a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of historical stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, it has grown to earn the reputation of “The Worlds Largest Grave”
7. The Fleet Street Ossuary, London, England
The Fleet Street Ossuary is located in London, England, within the crypts of St Brides Church. Excavations in the 1950’s of the church revealed a large number of skeletal remains from a medieval charnel house and individuals interred in the ossuary crypt. The skeletal remains from the St Brides’ crypts are a unique and valuable assemblage for the detailed biographical data of 227 individuals buried in the crypt when Wren rebuilt the church after the Great Fire of London.
8. San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
San Bernardino alle Ossa is a church in Milan, northern Italy, best known for its ossuary with Baroque-style decorations. In 1210, when an adjacent cemetery ran out of space, a room was built to hold bones. A church was attached in 1269. Renovated in 1679, it was destroyed by a fire in 1712. A new bigger church was then attached to the older one and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena. The ossuary’s vault was frescoed in 1695 by Sebastiano Ricci with a Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels, while in the pendentives are portrayed the Holy Virgin, St. Ambrose, St. Sebastian and St. Bernardino of Siena. Niches and doors are decorated with bones, in Roccoco style.
9. Martyrs of Otranto
St. Antonio Primaldo and his Companion Martyrs (Italian: I Santi Antonio Primaldo e compagni martiri), also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy who were killed on 14 August 1480 when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha.
10. Fontanelle cemetery
The Fontanelle cemetery in Naples is a charnel house, an ossuary, located in a cave in the tuff hillside in the Materdei section of the city. It is associated with a chapter in the folklore of the city. By the time the Spanish moved into the city in the early 16th century, there was already concern over where to locate cemeteries, and moves had been taken to locate graves outside of the city walls. Many Neapolitans, however, insisted on being interred in their local churches. To make space in the churches for the newly interred, undertakers started removing earlier remains outside the city to the cave, the future Fontanelle cemetery.
Header Image Credit: Jorge Láscar