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You’ve heard of catacombs, and that word probably brings to mind rows and rows of skulls and other human bones. However, the world catacomb only refers to subterranean passageways constructed and used for religious purposes, and not all catacombs contain burial chambers. An ossuary, on the other hand, is comprised of human skeletal remains. They are typically used when burial space is scarce — a body is laid to rest in a temporary grave, and then the bones are removed later and placed in a smaller space, such as a box, building or other site. The ossuaries of the past are really amazing, with skulls and bones placed in amazing, artistic arrangements.
Located in the Czech Republic, the Sedlec Ossuary is estimated to contain the remains of over 40,000 people. The Roman Catholic chapel was constructed on the site of a cemetery, with part of it designated to be an ossuary for the graves that were dug up during construction. After centuries of storage, a woodcarver was hired in 1870 to organize the bones into order, which yielded amazing, yet haunting results.
Basilica of St. Ursula, Cologne
Inside this gorgeous church in Germany, you’ll find a gorgeous ossuary within its Golden Chamber, which legend says houses the remains of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins accompanying her that were killed by the Huns. The walls of the chamber are lined with gorgeous designs using these bones, and some even spell out words.
In Austria, you’ll find the Hallstatt Ossuary, which holds over 1,200 skulls and dates back to the 12th century. In 1720, a tradition began where the skulls would be painted with beautiful designs, which included the deceased’s name and date of death, if known. There are over 600 painted skulls, which are carefully arranged alongside their kin. A woman, who died in 1983, became the last skull painted and added to the ossuary in 1995. It was her last request.
Monastery of San Francisco, Lima
Beneath the Monastery of San Francisco, Lima lies an impressive ossuary that contains the remains of around 25,000 individuals. The skulls and bones are lined up neatly in a circular shape, and despite the building being in its current location in Peru for centuries, the ossuary wasn’t discovered until 1943.
Capela dos Ossos
You’ll find the Capela dos Ossos in Portugal, located next to the Church of St. Francis. Inside, you’ll be greeted by the remains of around 5,000 monks, whose bones were used to beautifully decorate the walls of the chapel.
The crypt of the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome displays the bones of close to 4,000 friars. The bones are arranged in intricate patterns along the walls and have made the church a popular tourist destination.