In 2017 our son in law invited Terry to join him for a wood carving school in the tiny town of Elbigenalp, Austria. Jenna and Sebastian and I tagged along. She and I took a lot of walks and spent a lot of time on the little balcony outside our room, just comfortably chatting and drinking in the scenery, while Sebastian played with his toys. But one day, after Jenna had been out on a walk by herself, she returned exclaiming, “Mom, you have to see this! There is a church with all these bones in it!”
Later we trekked over to the church, descending many stone stairs to the “ossuary.” An immense pile of skulls and bones were stacked behind some iron bars, an astounding sight I can tell you.
An ossuary, or ossarium— a chamber for storing human bones—can be described as a place founded to house skeletal remains, often used when cemeteries are overcrowded and burial space is scarce, as, for example, during the plague in the Middle Ages. Bodies are first buried in a temporary grave, and later removed to allow for increased use of space.
There is an even more extensive history of this practice. Throughout ancient and medieval times and in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, displaying and maintaining the bones of the deceased, was a way to honor the dead. The “Bone Church” in the Czech Republic contains 40,000 to 70,000, including an impressive chandelier of bones which contains at least one of every bone in the human body.
The Bone Church is the result of the accumulation of bones after the mid-14th century outbreak of the Black Death, followed by the Hussite Wars in the 15th century. The bones were piled up pyramid style in the basement where it was used an ossuary. In 1870, a local woodcarver and carpenter was employed to organize the bones. After bleaching and carving them, he decorated the interior of the church, which has been described as “a breathtaking macabre result.”
Even earlier, Jews in the Jerusalem area practiced “ossilegium,” or secondary burial. About a year after the initial burial, when the flesh had decomposed, the bones of the deceased were placed in a small stone box, called an ossuary. These boxes were elaborately decorated and served a similar purpose to our preservation of the ashes of loved ones.
Prior to the Jews use of “ossilegium,” the Zorastrians, used a deep well for this function as long as 3,000 years ago. The called it “astudan,” literally “the place for the bones,” and had many rituals and regulations regarding it.
Despite its practical application when burial space is limited, the bones were intended to remind people of their mortality, encourage them to live their lives morally, and to recognize death as the “great equalizer.” One dies whether one is male or female, a king or a pauper, beloved or despised. Worthy considerations as we age.
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will” – Chuck Palahniuk