5 Houses and Towers of Bones to Visit

If you're looking for some ways to get into the Halloween Spirit, why not plan some trips to visit some Ossuaries and Charnel Houses? 

Charnel houses and ossuaries are generally used in places where burial space is limited. They are spaces that serve as the final resting place for skeletal remains of humans. With regards to ossuaries and charnel houses, bodies are generally buried in a grave first for up to about 5 years, and then, to create space for new bodies, the bones are removed and placed in a ossuary or charnel house. 

To this day, some Charnel Houses/Ossuaries are still in operation, like St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. This Charnel House has practical and metaphorical purposes. Practically speaking, Sinai is an inhospitable place and it has been difficult to establish a large cemetery in the rocky ground. Symbolically, having the charnel house there reminds the abbots at the monastery of the temporal nature of their existence and their fate thereafter. 

Ossuaries and Charnal houses can be found around the world, in several different cultures, from Native American culture, to Italy, to Persia to Japan. Here are some ideas of Ossuaries/Charnel Houses you could visit to get you in the Halloween mood: 

Photo by: Fundación Joaquín Díaz / Cayetano Enríquez

Photo by: Fundación Joaquín Díaz / Cayetano Enríquez

Ossuary in Wamba, Valladolid (Spain)

Housed in the Church - Santa Maria de Wamba - this ossuary contains the remains of at least 3000 monks. On one wall of the ossuary, you can read the words: "As you see, I saw myself as you see me, you see all ends here. Think about it and you will not sin...."

 Photo: Marco Almbauer , Charnel House in Evora, Portugal 

 Photo: Marco Almbauer , Charnel House in Evora, Portugal 

Charnel House in Evora (Portugal)

The "Capela de Ossos" or Chapel of Bones, was built in the 16th Century by a Franciscan Monk. In the spirit of the Counter Reformation, the monk wanted to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation of the transitory nature of life. Over the entrance the words are written: "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos" (Trans. "We, the bones that are here, await yours."). 

Photo by: BrokenSphere  

Photo by: BrokenSphere  

 Sedlec Ossuary (Czech Republic)

The creation of this ossuary in the Czech Republic began in the 1500s when the amount of human remains began to exceed the land available to bury them all. This ossuary is housed in a small, Roman Catholic church beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints. This ossuary is one of 12 World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic. It is estimated to house between 40,000 to 70,000 skeletons that have, over time, been artistically arranged into everything from chandeliers to a coat of arms. This is definitely a must see. 

Photo by J tomic m 

Photo by J tomic m 

Skull Tower (Serbia)

This is exactly what it sounds like - a tower constructed largely with human skulls. The origin of the tower dates back to 1809 and the Battle of Cegar, during the first Serbian Uprising. During this battle, Serbian revolutionaries were attacked by Turkish forces, and rather than be captured and impaled by the Turks, the leader of the revolutionaries fired his pistol into a powder magazine, killing himself and all the Serbian rebels and Turkish soldiers in the vicinity. Afterwards, the Turkish Vizier ordered that a tower be built out of the skulls of the killed Serbian revolutionaries. This was consistent with the tradition of Turkish forces creating tower structures from the skulls of their enemies in order to create terror amongst their opponents during the time of the Ottoman Empire.  

Photo by: Hans Peter Schaefer

Photo by: Hans Peter Schaefer

Ursulakammer in the

Basilica of St. Ursula (Cologne, Germany)

Housed in the Basilica of St. Ursula, you'll find the Golden Chamber, or Goldene Kammer, which is the largest mosaic of human bones ever created. The Golden Chamber is said to contain the alleged remains of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins who are said to have been killed by the Huns. The legend originally said only 11 virgins accompanied St. Ursula, but over time the number grew to 11,000. The walls of the Golden Chamber are covered in bones arranged in designs and/or letters along with relic skulls. The exact number of people whose remains are in the Golden Chamber remains ambiguous, but the number of skulls in the reliquary is greater than 11 and less than 11,000. These remains were found in 1106 in a mass grave and were assumed to be those of the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. The church took the bones and constructed the Golden Chamber to house the bones. 

If you're interested in learning about more Charnels and Ossuaries, you can check out a series of books written by Paul Koudounaris, including The Empire of Death

Article written by Rajmani Sinclair

August 25, 2016