Tuesday, 5 February 2013


There is nothing more macabre in human curiosity, than that we have for our own bodies and bones.
Drive past the scene of an accident, and you will appreciate my point. We all seemingly (well most of us) enjoy being revulsed or shocked.
Throughout history, that view of life and death has pretty much dominated human society, and with that in mind here are four famous locations that have become a kind of world class `freak show` for their displays of bones or bodies.

1) Catacombe dei Cappuccini

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo (also Catacombe dei Cappuccini or Catacombs of the Capuchins) are burial catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy.

Palermo's Capuchin monastery outgrew its original cemetery in the 16th century and monks began to excavate crypts below it. In 1599 they mummified one of their number, recently-dead brother Silvestro of Gubbio, and placed him into the catacombs.

The bodies were dehydrated on the racks of ceramic pipes in the catacombs and sometimes later washed with vinegar. Some of the bodies were embalmed and others enclosed in sealed glass cabinets. Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance.

Originally the catacombs were intended only for the dead friars. However, in the following centuries it became a status symbol to be entombed into the Capuchin catacombs. In their wills, local luminaries would ask to be preserved in certain clothes, or even to have their clothes changed at regular intervals. Priests wore their clerical vestments, others were clothed according to the contemporary fashion. Relatives would visit to pray for the deceased and also to maintain the body in presentable condition.

One of the more famous interments is the mortal remains of Rosalia Lombardo, who died aged 2 years, from pneumonia on December 6, 1920.Her grieving father, a General Lombardo approached a noted embalmer, Alfredo Salafia,to preserve her. Her body was one of the last corpses to be admitted to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo in Sicily The preservation technique used was a mystery for over a century but it is discovered now by scientists.

A 2009 National Geographic photograph of Rosalia Lombardo shows the mummy is beginning to show signs of decomposition, most notably discoloration. To address these issues the mummy was moved to a new drier spot in the catacombs, and her original coffin was placed in a hermetically sealed glass enclosure with nitrogen gas to prevent decay. The mummy is one of the best preserved bodies in the catacombs.

2) Catacombes de Paris

If sheer volumes of bones be your interest, then the Catacombes de Paris, or Paris Catacombs would surely satisfy your fascination.

 The catacombs are an underground ossuary, or `bone yard`. Located south of the former city gate (the "Barrière d'Enfer" at today's Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuary holds the remains of about six million people and fills a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of Paris's stone mines. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1874. Following an incident of vandalism, they were closed to the public in September 2009 and reopened 19 December of the same year.
The official name for the catacombs is l'Ossuaire Municipal. Although this cemetery covers only a small section of underground tunnels comprising "les carrières de Paris" ("the quarries of Paris"), Parisians today often refer to the entire tunnel network as "the catacombs".

3) The Sedlec Ossuary

 Also known as the Church of Bones is one of the most unusual chapels you will ever see. It is nothing spectacular from the outside, and is an unremarkable small chapel located in Sedlec, in the suburbs of Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic.

As you enter the Sedlec Ossuary though, you will soon realise why it is one of the most amazing and unique churches in the world. The Sedlec Ossuary is artistically decorated by more than 40.000 to 70.000 human skeletons.

Four enormous bell-shaped mounds occupy the corners of the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault.

Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large Schwarzenberg coat of arms, and the signature of Rint - the creator, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance.

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II of Bohemia. He returned with him a small amount of earth he had removed from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this pious act soon spread and the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe.

In the mid 14th century, during the Black Death, and after the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, many thousands were buried in the abbey cemetery, so it had to be greatly enlarged.
Around 1400, a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction, or simply slated for demolition to make room for new burials.
After 1511, the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half-blind monk of the order.

Between 1703 and 1710, a new entrance was constructed to support the front wall, which was leaning outward, and the upper chapel was rebuilt. This work, in the Czech Baroque style, was designed by Jan Santini Aichel.

In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to put the bone heaps into order, yielding a macabre result.

St Michan`s Church, Dublin

Built on the site of an early Danish chapel (1095), the current structure dates largely from a reconstruction in 1686, but is still (possibly) the only parish church on the north side of the Liffey surviving from a Viking foundation.

The vaults of St. Michan's uniquely contain many mummified remains. The walls in the vaults contain limestone, which has kept the air dry, creating ideal conditions for preservation.
Among the preserved remains are a 400-year-old nun, a six-and-a-half foot man popularly believed to have been a crusader, a body with its feet and right hand severed, and the Sheares brothers—Henry and John—who took part in the 1798 rebellion. The various holders of the title Earl of Leitrim were also interred here.

Skulls laid out for tourists to view
The church and vaults are open to tours on Saturdays, and seasonally on some weekdays. As an active place of worship however, the church is closed on Sunday to visitors.

When visiting be mindful that although the church are happy to show the bones interred within they won`t allow you to photograph or video the remains `out of respect`.
I found that sentiment a tadge hypocritical when I saw human skulls laid out from their rotted coffins like freak show exhibits.

But that`s my experience of visiting this unique place, and importantly where the author Bram Stoker was inspired to write `Dracula`.

Story: Chris Halton

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