Bone house

Bone house is a building or certain site which includes human skeletal remains. They are often created in places where there is lack of space. A body is first buried in a temporary grave. After a few years skull and bones are removed to a bone house. The word "ossuary" is also used for similar places.

Several places with the bone houses exist in Europe. Let’s start with the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. It is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located underneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints (in Czech - Hřbitovní kostel Všech Svatých) in Sedlec. Sedlec is a suburb of a city Kutná Hora in central part the Czech Republic. This bone house includes about 40,000-70,000 human skeletons. It is not only the pure number of skeletons which makes the place rather creepy. There is more. These skeletons are arranged in a very special way.

The history of the place starts in 1278. King Otakar of Bohemia sent Henry, the abbot of local Cistercian monastery founded in 1142, to the Holy Land. From his pilgrimage Henry brought little bit of soil he found on the place of Golgotha. He sprinkled the soil over the abbey cemetery. This fact was quite attractive to people. Everyone wanted to be buried there. Thousands of people, who died during the Black Death of the 14th century and the "Hussite wars" in the early 15th century, were buried at the cemetery. Around 1400 a Gothic church was built in the center of cemetery. To make place for new burials bones were excavated and put inside this church.

Sedlec
Sedlec Ossuary, detail

In 1870 local woodcarver František Rint was employed by the rich Schwarzenberg family to put the bones into order. He did a fascinating work. He created the huge candelier which includes at least one of all human bones. Other objects made out of bones by František Rint are piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a big Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, and the signature of Rint.

Sedlec
Sedlec Ossuary, detail

Czermna is a town located in the Polish region of Lower Slesia. There is a special chapel in the local Saint Bartholomew's church. It is known as the Skull Chapel (in Polish Kaplica Czaszek). Its walls and ceiling are covered with bones and skulls of more than 3,000 people. Under the chapel itself there are bones of 21,000 people.

Skull chapel in Czermna, Poland (photo by Merlin)
Skull chapel in Czermna, Poland (photo by Merlin)

All these human remains belonged to people who had died in wars (for example, Thirty Years' War), of various diseases and hunger. Bones were put to this chapel between 1776 and 1804 by the priest Vaclav Tomasek. Let's just mention that his bones are also placed in this unique chapel.

For the next of European bone houses let’s move to Austria. Hallstatt, Upper Austria is a village located the Salzkammergut region. The word hall in the name of this place is probably of Celtic origin and means salt. Salt mining was very important for the village and whole region.

Beinhaus in Hallstatt
Beinhaus (Bone house) in Hallstatt

What made this village famous is the "Beinhaus" (Bone house). It includes over 1200 skulls. The oldest are from the 12th century. The last skull put there was the one in 1995. 610 skulls have flowery designs painted on them. This tradition started in 1720.

Next of European bone houses is in Italy. Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, is a church in Rome built between 1626 and 1631. The church is has 6 parts – Mass chapel, Crypt of resurrection, Crypt of the skulls, Crypt of the pelvises, Crypt of the leg bones and thigh bones and Crypt of the three skeletons. The Mass chapel is the only part of church without bones as the mass is celebrated there.

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

The crypts contain bones of 4,000 friars buried between 1500 and 1870. Some skeletons are still in the Franciscan habits. Very interesting text can be seen in one of the chapels – “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be". The crypts and their bones became an inspiration for some writers. Marquis de Sade visited the crypts in 1775. He wrote in his Voyage d’Italie “I have never seen anything more striking”. Mark Twain visited this bone house in summer of 1867. He dedicated five pages of his “The Innocents Abroad” to this fascinating church.

Capela dos Ossos
Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), detail

Portuguese city Evora, in the region of Alentejo in southern part of the country, has its Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones. It can be found next to the entrance of the church of Saint Francis. The Capela dos Ossos was built in the 16th century. What is the purpose of this place? The text that can been seen when entering the place shows it best - "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos" (“We bones here, for yours await”).

Capela dos Ossos
Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), detail

The bone house chapel is 18.7 meters long and 11 meters wide. The chapel includes bones of about 5,000 monks. Skulls and bones in the walls are kept together with cement. Two desiccated corpses, one of them of a child, dangle from a chain.

Spain has its own ossuary too. It is located in the village of Wamba, next to the city of Valladolid. Local church of Santa Maria includes some 1,000 skulls and other bones belonging to the villagers who died between 12th and 18th century. The ossuary was maintained by the monk order of Saint John. At its entrance you may read the following text.

"As you see yourself, I saw myself too,
as you see me, you will see yourself,
everything ends in this,
think about it and you won't fall into sin."