What's the story behind catacombs and bone chandeliers in churches?

I have searched but cannot find the answer to my question about the philosophy behind using human bones in artwork, or mortared decoratively into the walls of vaults or used in chandeliers, etc. Usually these things happen in holy places run by religious orders. What gives? Doesn’t this casual use of bones indicate an objectification of human remains? On the one hand, bones are obsessively preserved, but on the other, they are used as building blocks in walls, artwork, etc. All I can find as explanation is a blurb on how Paris was forced to pile up bones in catacombs because graveyards were overflowing and becoming a health hazard. While this is a practical reason, I’m more interested in the religious ideas behind the practice.

It reminds people of the transient nature of physical life and the relative importance of the spiritual.

Contemplating death can be a good way to get perspective on what’s important in life, whatever your religious background may be.

Can you please be more specific? What religion are you quoting there? Many of these places are run by Catholic or Orthodox orders and it seems to be an outdated practice. I’ve never heard of Protestants doing this, for example.

I am not looking for personal opinions or general platitudes.

since you didn’t limit yourself to Christianity I can add that certain Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu sects make use of skulls and bones for exactly that reason. So that the trainee or novice monks are faced every single day with the absolute inescapable truth of their own mortality. Only Nirbana or Enlightenment or Rebirth in a higher realm or rebirth as a god (depending on WHICH exact buddhist/hindu sect) frees you from the endless wheel of death and mortaility.

Best you realise this now… mkay?

Unnecessary answer, sorry.

To get more detail on the subject of intentional displays of bones and symbols of death you could look up “memento mori”, and “danse macabre” (which refers to sculpture, paintings and music more than to actual bones).

As for the Paris catacombs, they are as you note, simply an underground cemetery - the result of the transfer of remains from old cemeteries. Although there are areas where the bones are ‘displayed’ - most of the bones are randomly piled into “ossuaires” (pits of bones), and not displayed.

Other thing . . . a lot of those European displays took place after the Black Death reached Europe. By some estimates, the plague took out a third of the total population of Europe in less than a decade. Some areas were completely depopulated. That’s a lot of dead bodies. The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic was built on a church graveyard, necessitating the disinterring of the remains on the site. The church’s graveyard was particularly popular for burial because it was sprinkled with dirt brought back from Golgotha. While one of the monks was responsible for disinterring and piling the bones in an orderly manner, it wasn’t until the 1870s that the bones were arranged in their current macabre design, chandelier and all.

It was also understood, especially in urban areas, that the dead were not permanently buried in churchyards. In Paris, grave space was so expensive and scarce that bodies were dug up shortly after they had been skeletonized, and the bones were stored in the catacombs. According to Christian doctrine at the time, your bones didn’t have to be in order for you to be resurrected, and the catacombs were just as consecrated as the churchyards.

The Capuchin Crypt in Rome is decorated with the bones of former members of the order. They are first buried in the soil, then after a few years the bones are dug up and used in various sculptures and decorations, as well as a few being displayed in robes.


about covers it.

You can see the crypts and read about them here- http://www.cappucciniviaveneto.it/TheCrypt.htm

Edit- the first time we visited about 6 years ago, no monks had died for several years. However, this summer there were several fresh graves as well as a few more recent corpses on view.

This is still the case, at least in my hometown of Pamplona; plots there are never individual. Hey, there isn’t any more room in the whole town to build new houses for the living, why would there be for the dead? Some plots and niches have short leases (5, 10 or 20 years), and get emptied if the lease runs out; others simply get full and need to be emptied before the next coffin can be put in. Checking whether bones need to be transferred to the ossuary (and doing so) is one of the tasks cementery workers perform when a grave is opened before a burial.

We reckon that my family’s grave will have to be emptied in about two more burials, depending on which coffins are used. A couple of the coffins that had been used before my father’s own burial (which took place in 2000) had metal linings: unlike cloth and wood, these don’t rot, so they take up a lot of space; no bones were removed at that time, but those metal plates were taken out and disposed of as scrap metal. We were asked whether we wanted any metal crosses they found; a cousin of my father’s asked for the one which had capped her son’s coffin. The rest, scrap metal again.

Gravestones dating a few hundred years back are often decorated with skull motifs - this doesn’t really have much bearing on the question of ossuaries and bone chandeliers, but I feel it’s a slightly relevant sidenote regarding attitudes to death and dying.