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What is an Ossuary?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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An ossuary, also referred to as a bone house, is a facility for the storage of human bones. Ossuaries can range from complex underground crypts to simple wooden boxes. They play a vital role in several world religions which practice exhumation of bodies after burial. Many countries have ossuaries that people can visit, some of which include architectural features made from bone including chandeliers, wall decorations, and flooring. Most ossuary buildings contain individual boxes of human bone, also called ossuaries.

While the idea of an ossuary makes some individuals squeamish, ossuaries have been a part of human life for thousands of years. Some early humans exhumed and moved their dead after a set period of time had elapsed. Some cultures carried their dead with them in portable ossuaries or slings, because they believed that this would make the spirits of the dead more accessible. The construction of solid

crypt

-like ossuaries has been carried on for centuries, with several fine examples scattered around Europe.

Exhumation is most common in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where bodies are exhumed several years after burial so that the bones can be transferred to an ossuary. Many customs accompany the exhumation, varying by area. A common tradition is that the moral righteousness of the individual can be determined by the condition of the body. In the Catholic Church, an ossuary is used to house the relics of saints, and many deeply religious individuals make pilgrimages to the site of ossuaries so that they can look on the remains of saints and other individuals sacred to the church. The Zoroastrian religion also incorporated the use of ossuaries for skeletonized bone, throwing the bones into a large well.

The custom of exhumation and interment in an ossuary used to be a part of Jewish tradition as well, due to limited cemetery space. Some religions, such as Islam, have never had a tradition of exhumation, and the practice is forbidden to Muslims. Many ancient cultures have artifacts of human bone, suggesting that exhumation of skeletonized bodies was commonplace.

One famous ossuary in the world is Sedlec, which incorporates over 40,000 human skeletons into the total construction. Another famous ossuary is the James Ossuary, a small box which was believed to belong to the brother of Jesus. After extensive scientific examination, the ossuary was deemed to be a forgery.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Jun 11, 2012

@umbra21 - It depends on what you need for respect though. I've seen an ossuary in the Czech Republic where they made big sculptures out of the bones. That doesn't strike me as respectful, but to them it was. I think Christians tend to see bones that way because they don't think the soul remains in the body at all, but other religions and cultures might see it differently.

Often shrunken heads are kept because they are supposed to have the power of the person they were taken from. So, they might well believe that part of the person remains in the body and not think it appropriate for it to become a tourist attraction.

For me, it's about respecting the living people's beliefs rather than respecting the dead. The bones in an ossuary are just bones to me. To an archaeologist they might be a treasure. To a descendant they might be sacred. It's a matter of trying to ensure everyone gets what they need.

By umbra21 — On Jun 11, 2012

@bythewell - Well, I think it's a difficult line to cross. I know that there has been controversy recently in New Zealand over this kind of thing. There are quite a few Maori shrunken heads being stored by one of their big museums there, and some people are saying that they should be put on display instead.

The shrunken heads were sold to outsiders a couple of hundred years ago, because the people of Europe were fascinated by the Maori tattoos and it was already common practice to shrink the heads. They could sell the heads of their enemies for a lot of muskets.

Now, they are seen as sacred ancestors and efforts and tax money is put into trying to recover them. If the family is not known, the heads are stored in the museum, where I believe they may be studied but not photographed out of respect.

I can see the point of the people who think they ought to be displayed, since I find the idea of them very interesting, but at the same time they are human remains. We should do what we can to respect their memory.

By bythewell — On Jun 10, 2012

I saw a few examples of ossuarys when I was traveling in Europe, including the Kostnice Ossuary. I thought I might be disturbed by the bones, but actually they were fascinating and could be quite beautiful.

What did disturb me was how often the bones were treated like a tourist attraction. This wasn't true of the churches most of the time, as they had the bones displayed the same way they had for hundreds of years and usually didn't have anything special pointing them out.

A few of them charged extra to see a saint's bones, though, which could be understandable I suppose if they were very popular and they needed to winnow out a few of the people wanting to see them.

But there were some places with bones on display that didn't treat it as a sacred place at all. It just seemed tacky rather than reverential and like all they were interested in was getting money off people rather than using it to maintain the bones themselves.

I think it's a shame when they forget that those bones were once real people.

By anon21458 — On Nov 16, 2008

For your article on ossuaries, you could have named a very famous and more recent example such as the ossuary in Douaumont, France. It was built for the victims of the battle of Verdun in WWI. Approximately 100,000 graves are there.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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