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Memorial architecture: Ossuaries

Updated on December 12, 2016

What is an Ossuary

The word “ossuary” is derived from the Latin OS (bone). In the beginning, an ossuarium was an urn or a type of box for bones.

As time passes, and the burial space begins scarce, the bodies were buried during some time in temporary graves and, after some years, moved to another place.

Sometimes, war, diseases, social and political issues were at the origin of an ossuary. People needed to bury a big amount of bodies in a small space. Some ossuaries are chapels, cemeteries, catacombs, museums... Others are memorials, usually attached to terrible events.

Here are only represented the most well-known. There's a lot more places like this around the world.

The Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), Évora,  Portugal

The Chapel walls and eight pillars are decorated in carefully arranged bones and skulls held together by cement. The ceiling is made of white painted brick and is painted with death motifs. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000.

The ceiling is made of white painted brick and is painted with death motifs. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming from the cemeteries that were situated in several dozen churches. Some of these skulls have been scribbled with graffiti. Two desiccated corpses, one of which is a child, dangle from ropes. And at the roof of the chapel, the phrase "Melior est die mortis die nativitatis (Better is the day of death than the day of birth)" (Ecclesiastes, 7, 1) from Vulgate is written.

There are other lesser-known ossuaries in Portugal.


Catacombs of Paris, France

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which holds the remains of over six million people in a small part of the ancient Mines of Paris tunnel network.

In 1861, Felix Nadar, photographed this monument for the first time. It is the very first use of illumination techniques with artificial light (patent deposit in February, 1861).


Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, Italy

The crypt, or ossuary, now contains the remains of 4,000 friars buried between 1500 and 1870, during which time the Roman Catholic Church permitted burial in and under churches. The underground crypt is divided into five chapels.


Bonehouse in Hallstatt cemetery, Austria

The Bone House is one of Hallstatt’s treasures. It’s among the last of such places in all of Austria. Karners, places of second burials, were once much more common in the Eastern Alps, but they have now largely disappeared. The Bone House in Hallstatt is one of the last, and it has always contained one of the most remarkable collections of painted skulls, anywhere.


Fontanelle cemetery, Italy

Located in the Valley of the Dead, Naples ancient necropolis and modern day Rione Sanità district is a 30,000 square meter cavern burrowed into the tufo of Capodimonte Hill. Named for the abundance of fresh water springs in the area, some estimates say the Fontanelle Cemetery once held some 8 million human bones. The skeletal remains of those too poor to afford a proper burial place and the untold number of souls claimed by disease.


Skull Chapel, Czermna, Poland

The chapel was built in 1776 by the local parish. It is the mass grave of people who died during the Wars (1740 - 1763), as well as of people who died because of cholera epidemics, plague and hunger.


The Golden Chamber of Basilica of St. Ursula, Cologne, Germany

The Golden Chamber, or Goldene Kammer, of the church contains the alleged remains of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins who are said to have been killed by the Huns


Ossuary in Wamba ,Valladolid, Spain

The church of Santa Maria has a huge ossuary over 3000 skulls of monks. On one wall, one can read the following epitaph: "As you see, I saw myself as you see me, you see all ends here Think about it and you will not sin...."


The Douaumont ossuary, France

The Douaumont ossuary is a memorial containing the remains of soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in World War I. It is located in Douaumont, within the Verdun battlefield. This postcard dates from 1920 and represents a provisory ossuary


Otranto Cathedral, Italy

St. Antonio Primaldo and his companion, also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto who were killed on August 14, 1480. On 13 October 1481 the bodies of the Otrantines were found to be uncorrupted and were translated to the city's cathedral. They were later moved to the reliquary chapel, consecrated by Benedict XIII, then to a site under the altar where they are now sited. A recognitio canonica between 2002 and 2003 confirmed their authenticity.


Schlachtkapelle Sempach, Switzerland

Schlachtkapelle (lit. "battle chapel") is a term used in Switzerland for a chapel dedicated to the memory of one of the battles of the Old Swiss Confederacy.


St Leonards Church, Hythe, England

The large 11th-century church is up the hill; the tower at its eastern end was destroyed by an earth tremor in 1739 and restored in 1750. The chancel, from 1220, covers a processional ossuary (a bone store, more commonly found on the continent) lined with 2,000 skulls and 8,000 thigh bones. They date from the medieval period, probably having been stored after removal, to make way for new graves. This was common in England, but the bones were usually dispersed, and this is thus a rare collection.


Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

After the Serbian Revolution,1804-1817, a Turkish vizier, ordered a tower to be made from the skulls of the killed Serbian revolutionaries. The tower is 10 feet (3.0 m) high, and originally contained 952 skulls embedded in the walls.


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime. In this museum, a former S-21 prison camp, we can find on display an infamous skull map and cabinets filled with human skulls.


Charnel house on the cemetery in Pisweg, Carinthia, Austria

Mortal remains in the basement floor of the charnel house on the cemetery in Pisweg, municipality Gurk, district Sankt Veit an der Glan, Carinthia


San Bernardino alle ossa (Milan, Italy) 

San Bernardino alle Ossa is a church in Milan, northern Italy, best known for its ossuary, a small side chapel decorated with numerous human skulls and bones.

In 1210, when an adjacent cemetery ran out of space, a room was built to hold the 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 old one and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena.


Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Czech Republic

Ossuary below the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, in the Czech Republic. It is one of twelve World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic. The Ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones were artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. The Ossuary is among the most visited tourist attractions of the Czech Republic - attracting over 200,000 visitors annually


A Jewish Ossuary, James Ossuary

The James Ossuary is a 1st-century chalk box containing the bones of the dead. The Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" if genuine, might provide archaeological evidence for Jesus of Nazareth.


Do you know another Ossuary?

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