Human history is filled with grisly, nightmarish realities that seem to belong more in scary stories than social studies classes. But our perception of a past that is menacing and macabre is not necessarily accurate. Take bones for example. It was actually a Christian tradition to store bones in catacombs and ossuaries (depositories for the remains of the dead). Just because we don’t use them as much nowadays doesn’t mean they are creepy or haunted. Because of this practical storage method, we get fascinating displays of human remains all over the world that have become like museums that transport us to another time.
Catacombs of Paris, France:
These winding and maze-like tunnels under the city of romance are the largest catacombs that we know of. They stretch to about 200 miles within what was once limestone quarries, though most of the area is restricted. Fascinating bone displays line the walls and columns of many of the larger tunnels, and experts estimate that the remains of millions of Parisians are preserved in this place. As you enter the ossuary, make sure to read the alexandrine verse above the entrance, “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” (Halt, this is the realm of Death).
Brno Catacombs, Czech Republic:
This large and spacious depository is believed to be the second largest ossuary in the world. Located partially under the church of St. James, this burial place is believed to hold remains of up to 50,000 people. The striking stacks of skulls have interested enthusiasts from all over the world—and the catacombs were a fairly recent discovery found again in 2001.
Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic:
Though second in size to Brno in this country, the Sedlec Ossuary is absolutely unique in its decorative use of human remains. Over 40,000 people’s remains are housed here, and their bones are put to good use: interior design. One of the most memorable features of this chapel crypt is the artistically designed ceiling and the enormous chandelier made from every bone in the human body. The Gothic church that houses this depository sees around 200,000 visitors per year.
Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, Rome, Italy:
In true Italian style, every inch of this ossuary is decorative and symbolic. The bones of over 4,000 Capuchin friars are used in the crypt as artistic decorations with a resounding message: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
The Skull Chapel, Poland:
St. Bartholomew’s Church in Lower Silesia, Poland, has been dubbed “the Skull Chapel” because of the bone displays found inside. The chapel was built in 1776 right on the border on the then Prussian border. This mass grave holds thousands of skulls and skeletal remains adorning the walls, ceiling, and floor of the structure. This unique ossuary looks quaint, cute, and unassuming from the outside, but if you’re feeling too comfortable and relaxed, read the startling Latin inscription on the altar: “Arise from the Dead.”