What’s an Ossuary? History, Purpose & Popular Ossuaries Explained

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If you’re not sure what an ossuary is, you’re not alone. In the modern world, we no longer use ossuaries to bury or inter the remains of our dead. But ossuaries still exist throughout the world. 

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You can visit ossuaries in many shapes and sizes, both incredibly ancient and relatively new. And observing or even stepping foot inside an ossuary is a unique opportunity to connect with death practices through human history. 

So what exactly is an ossuary, and what is an ossuary’s purpose? Below, you’ll find out everything you might want to know about ossuaries, how we’ve used them throughout the ages, and where you can find them today. 

What’s an Ossuary for a Burial?

You can find the meaning of the word  “ossuary” (pronounced OSH-oo-ary) in its Latin roots: the word stems from the Latin, “osso” which means “bone.” 

The suffix “-ary” means “for the purpose of” or “pertaining to.” So, an ossuary is something pertaining to or for the purpose of bones. 

More specifically, an ossuary is a chamber or facility used to store human skeletal remains. An ossuary can be above ground or below ground, and it can take the form of a box, a well, or an entire building. 

Secondary gravesites

An ossuary is a type of burial site known as a secondary grave. That means that the body undergoes another type of burial or treatment before its interment in an ossuary. Only skeletal remains are stored or kept in ossuaries, so a natural burial or some other treatment (such as a low-temperature cremation) must take place first. A popular choice throughout history was to bury the dead elsewhere. Then, an undertaker would disinter the body after enough time has passed for it to decompose. 

A secondary gravesite also refers to the location where remains are transferred after they’re discovered or recovered. For example, the bones of soldiers on a battlefield might be discovered and moved to a memorial ossuary. 

Community gravesites

Another quality that makes ossuaries unique is that they’re rarely individual resting grounds. More often, an ossuary is a collection of multiple—or many—individuals’ skeletal remains. 

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How Were Ossuaries Used Throughout History? 

Ossuaries have served different purposes through human history. As a place to store only bones, rather than full human remains or even ashes, an ossuary has different uses and benefits than a crypt, cemetery, or columbarium. 

Saving space

As mentioned above, ossuaries typically hold more than just one person’s skeletal remains. Since they only hold bones, a community could inter many more remains in an ossuary than in a cemetery, columbarium, or tomb.

This made ossuaries a popular choice, throughout history, for cities and towns with limited burial space. It also made them popular in situations where mass (yet respectful) graves were urgently needed, such as plague outbreaks and especially bloody battles. 

Honoring the dead

Ossuaries aren’t just space-saving devices. Throughout history, they’ve also been a way that religious and spiritual communities show respect to the dead. For example, the Zoroastrians in Persia used deep underground wells as ossuaries, and they called them astudans. The ancient religion (c. 3000 years ago) had many rituals and regulations surrounding the astudan and what it meant to be interred inside one. 

Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism have also honored the dead through the use of ossuaries throughout history. 

Using an ossuary rather than a tomb or crypt allows the community to arrange the bones of the deceased into more elaborate forms. It also allows the public to view the skeletal remains indefinitely, in many cases, rather than tucking them away underground or in a casket. 

Where Can You Find Ossuaries Today?

If you want to see an ossuary in real life, you’re in luck. There are still many historical ossuaries that are open for visitation around the world. And even those that aren’t open to the public are still worth learning and reading about. Here are some examples of important historical ossuaries. 

Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa, Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 people between 1975 and 1979, following the Cambodian Civil War. Many of those people were buried in unceremonious mass graves in what’s known today as the Killing Fields. 

But in Phnom Penh, the people erected a memorial to honor and remember everyone who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. At Phnom Penh Memorial Stupa in Cambodia, the remains of an estimated 10,000 people are arranged in multiple layers within a Buddhist-style Stupa. 

St. Catherine's Monastery, Qesm Saint Katrin, Egypt

At the foot of Mout Sinai in the desert lands of Egypt, there’s an ossuary shrouded in mystery. St. Catherine’s Monastery was built in the early 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. 

Although some historians dispute the claim, St. Catherine’s holds the title of the oldest monastery in the world. It also holds the bones of the many monks who were sent to Mount Sinai as punishment for misdeeds. 

According to reports, the monks discovered that the ground around the chapel was unsuitable for proper burials. Their answer was to wait for the deceased bodies of those monks who passed away to decompose. Then, they created a pile of skulls and bones below the monastery. 

St. Catherine’s Monastery is unique because, although it’s a crucial religious site, the ossuary was strictly functional. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Wamba Ossuary, Spain

The Wamba Ossuary is one of the largest ossuaries in Spain, and it’s packed floor-to-ceiling with skeletal remains. 

The ossuary lies deep within the vaults of Santa Maria Church in Wamba, and it displays the skeletons of thousands of monks and villagers alike. The compilation of bones is so dense that you could almost overlook the 3,000 skulls staring out at you from amongst the rest of the remains. 

The bones were placed at Santa Maria Church between the 12th and 18th centuries. In 1931, the site finally became a protected historical location. 

San Bernadino alle Ossa, Italy

Milan, Italy is home to an Ossuary which was built in 1210. It holds the bones from a nearby hospital and graveyard, which had become overcrowded. 

The hospital was built in 1145 near the Santo Stefano Maggiore Church in Via Brolo, Milan. But its adjacent cemetery, which collected the bodies of people who passed away at the hospital, proved inefficient. So in 1210, the people built a small chamber to house the bones of many of the decomposed bodies from the overfull cemetery

The ossuary today sits at the end of a corridor, attached to a small church that was constructed in 1269. The walls of the chamber are completely covered with skeletal remains, including skulls. Skeletons also doctorate the doors of the ossuary and the pillars inside. 

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Sedlec Ossuary holds the nickname of the “Bone Church,” and it’s well-deserved. It’s also known as Kostnice Ossuary Beinhaus, and you can visit it in the Czech Republic, just an hour’s drive from Prague. 

The Bone Church displays some of the most macabre artwork in the world, made up of between 40,000 and 70,000 disarticulated skeletons. 

It features four elaborate bone candelabras, as well as six enormous skeletal pyramids. If you visit the Bone Church, you’ll also find two huge bone chalices, and an ornate chandelier made up of almost every bone in the human body. 

Eggenburg Charnel, Austria

In Eggenburg, Austria, you can visit an ossuary dating back to the 14th century. Inside, you’ll find a frightening-yet-artful arrangement of 5,800 Austrian skeletons. Every bone is meticulously placed to give the cavern symmetry and eerie beauty. 

The ossuary sites underground, opening up to the wide, cylindrical chamber filled with stacked bones. Each skeleton was disarticulated and arranged to form a semicircle around a small pile of skulls. 

Authorities have blocked the site with protective glass, and visitors can’t get too close to the central cavern. 

Catacombs of Paris, France

If you’ve ever visited Paris, you might have inadvertently walked on top of the largest ossuary in the world. Underneath the streets of this populous French metropolis lie the skeletal remains of more than six million people, neatly stacked in a labyrinth of catacombs. 

The Catacombs of Paris consist of nearly 186 miles of tunnels, of which about three acres are packed with re-interred bones. The city moved the remains into the underground ossuary when its cemeteries began to overflow in the late 1700s. 

Can You Be Buried in an Ossuary?

Unfortunately, modern-day ossuary interment is outside the realm of possibility for most people. You would have to process the body with natural burial or cremation and then recover the bones to place in the ossuary. And state and federal law pretty strictly prohibits that type of behavior. Those laws are called “abuse-of-corpse” laws, and they forbid funeral homes from handing over skeletal remains at all. 

Additionally, you’re not likely to find an undertaker or mortician who’s willing to help you recover a loved one’s bones after burial, or even after cremation. In fact, modern-day cremation makes skeletal remains so fragile that you likely wouldn’t be able to store them in an ossuary anyway. 

If you’re still interested in the idea of a modern-day ossuary, the closest thing you’re likely to find is a columbarium, which stores the cremated remains of multiple people in urns set inside the walls. 


Sources

  1. Curry, Dennis C. “The Mechanics of Ossuary Burials.” Maryland.gov. mht.maryland.gov/documents/pdf/archeology/currentresearch/middle_atlantic_ossuaries.pdf
  2. “Bone Houses: A Definitive Guide to the World's Ossuaries.” Atlas Obscura. www.atlasobscura.com/lists/definitive-guide-to-ossuaries-crypts-and-catacombs
  3. Dowson, Thomas. “Ten Peculiar, Poignant, and Popular Ossuaries Around Europe.” Archeology Travel. archaeology-travel.com/top-ten/10-popular-ossuaries-in-europe/

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