Tag Archives: ossuary

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

The Aître Saint Maclou

The Atrium of Saint Maclou
186 Rue Martainville, 76000 Rouen, France
Telephone: 02 32 08 13 90
Established: 1348
Number of interments: none any longer
Open:  Daily. April – October from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Between November and March, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission: Free.

Aître Saint Maclou is tricky to find, in that the sign is up overhead. You walk through a passage between buildings to reach the atrium.

The sign is over your head.

Rouen, on the River Seine, is the historical capital city of Normandy in northwestern France. Once one of the biggest, wealthiest cities of medieval Europe, Rouen served as a capital of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of France from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

When the Black Plague struck Rouen in 1348, it wiped out three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants. To accommodate the dead, a new cemetery was built near the Church of Saint Maclou. Without regard to social standings, all bodies were dumped into the mass grave.

For centuries, Christian philosophy taught that the soul was fundamental and the body mere dross, to be discarded. Simultaneously, the Church preached bodily resurrection. When the trumpet sounded on the final day, all the dead around the world would rise out of their graves to be judged. Bodiless spirits would not rise. Therefore, bones could not be cremated or otherwise destroyed. They had to be buried, preferably in hallowed ground. They could not later be discarded.

Once Rouen recovered from the Black Death, shops and homes surrounded the little cemetery. Many of these half-timbered medieval buildings still survive in the area.

The Plague returned in the 16th century. All the bones remaining in the Atrium of Saint Maclou were exhumed and placed into a cloister surrounding the cemetery, so that the ground could be reused to bury the new dead. This time, two-thirds of the surrounding parish succumbed to the Black Death.

Spades, mattocks, and coffins decorate the buildings. The weathered figures below perform the Dance of Death.

The cloisters, begun in 1526, were decorated with skulls and grave-digging implements, including spades, mattocks, and coffins. A fourth building was added to the cloister in 1651 to be a charity school for boys, even though the cemetery was still in use. These buildings were taken over by the regional Fine Arts school in the 1940s.

The cemetery itself was closed by royal decree in 1781. The area became a designated historical monument in 1862. Today the lovely, macabre courtyard remains as the only medieval ossuary still in existence in a European city center. Tour groups in every possible language often disrupt the atrium’s peace, but despite that, it is a breathtaking, thought-provoking little space.  Every city in Europe once had a space like this — and this is the only one left.

Useful Links:

French wikipedia page

Satellite photo

Travelers’ reviews

Other Rouen gravesites on Cemetery Travel:

Richard the Lion-Hearted

Joan of Arc

Cemetery of the Week #19: The Paris Municipal Ossuary

Cross of Skulls

Catacombes de Paris/Paris Municipal Ossuary
1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
75014 Paris, France
Telephone: 01 43 22 47 63
Established: 1780s
Size: About a mile of tunnels is open to viewing
Number of skeletons: Approximately six million
Open: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Monday. Last admission at 4 p.m. Limited to 200 visitors in the site at a time. Lines may last up to two hours in summer. People with heart trouble or difficulty breathing should be aware there are 130 steps down and 83 back up. Young children or people suffering “nervous disease” should not visit. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. No toilets or cloakroom.
Admission: Adults: 8 Euros, Youth (14 to 26 years old): 4 Euros, Children under 13: Free

The origins of the word catacomb are uncertain. Linguists suggest it comes from the Greek kata kumbas, which means “near the low place.” It’s unclear why this Greek phrase became attached to a district in Rome where, in the second century A.D., Christians buried their dead. Now the word is applied to any underground burial place.

The catacombs of Paris originally had nothing to do with death. They began as a network of quarries beneath the city, providing gypsum to build the metropolis. After they’d been mined, the tunnels stood empty and unused.

Concurrent with the reconstruction of Paris in the 1780s, a movement gained momentum to clean out the old churchyards. Accounts of the period speak of pestilential hellholes, jammed with liquefying cadavers. One report claimed that the notorious Cimetière des Innocents broke through an adjoining wall to spill corpses into an apartment building. Fearing epidemics, the city fathers voted to excavate the Parisian graveyards.

Beginning at dusk, workmen emptied charnel pits around Paris by bonfire light. It was impossible even to consider individualizing the remains. After the bones were loaded respectfully onto carts, priests chanting the funeral service followed them to the underground quarry.

In 1786, after the ossuary was filled, the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the residues of approximately six million people. Among the now-anonymous dead were Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry; Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s girlfriend; alchemist, spy, and reputed immortal Saint-Germain; the philosopher of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu; Mirabeau, who advocated constitutional monarchy and whose corpse was ejected from the Panthéon; Danton, who participated in storming the Bastille to subsequently be guillotined during the Reign of Terror; Robespierre, who engineered the Reign of Terror, then became its prey; and numberless victims of the Revolution.

In 1874, the Municipal Ossuary opened to viewers, including Bismarck and Napoleon III. Ossuary, from the Latin for bones, means a container or vault for the remains of the dead.

“Venez, gens du monde, venez dans ces demeures silencieuses, et votre âme alors tranquille sera frappée de la voix qui s’éleve de leur intérieur: ‘C’est ici le plus grandes des maîtres, la Tombeau.’”

When I visited last, a spiral staircase of stone wound down and down until it reached a path paved with dressed stone and edged with pebbles. From the arching ceiling, bare light bulbs warmed the buttery yellow stone. I couldn’t touch the sides of the tunnel when I stretched out my hands, but I didn’t reach up to measure the short distance overhead. A sign said we were 20 meters below the streets of Paris, deeper than the Métro.

Eventually we reached a doorway. Wooden panels, painted white and black, flanked yawning darkness. Above the lintel, a sign warned, “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” Stop. Here is the Kingdom of Death.

The warning frightened away the Nazis, who never discovered the French Resistance hiding in the catacombs after August 1944. Right beneath the Parisian streets, the Resistance had concealed a radio capable of reaching London. They worked in the tunnels until the liberators came.

Beyond the warning, the brown knobs of fibulas and femurs stacked higher than our heads. Skulls formed contrasting lines among the leg bones. Empty eye sockets gazed patiently at us.

Bone upon bone upon bone: the sheer number of these anonymous memento mori is staggering. I had trouble grasping the concept of six million skulls, twelve million shinbones, 72 million ribs…. If a human body has 206 bones, there must be over a billion bones stacked in the catacomb tunnels — assuming, that is, that the gravediggers moved everything. I imagined some bourgeois matron trying to gather herself together after the Trump of Doom sounded. The hipbone’s connected to the backbone…. Which of these backbones are mine?

Beautiful inscriptions graced plaques set amongst the remains. Here and there a yellow spotlight cast a narrow beam, but overall it’s best to bring a flashlight.

The catacombs hold a constant temperature of 57 degrees. One of the guidebooks warned us to take sweaters but I found the tunnels comfortably warm. It might have been cozy, if it hadn’t been so damp. Water dripped incessantly, puddling on the floor.

The catacombs were closed for a while, due to vandalism. Don’t be tempted to touch or move the bones. They are old and fragile — and you will be searched when you exit.

Useful Links:

Official web site

English tour of the Catacombs

My review of Christine Quigley’s Skulls and Skeletons

My review of The Empire of Death

Other ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora


Everything you wanted to know about Skulls and Skeletons

Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and AccumulationsSkulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations by Christine Quigley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was waiting for someone to pull all this information together into one place! Quigley’s introductory chapter collects all the statistics about the factors (body makeup before death, burial practices, temperature, soil composition) which determine how long bones can survive. While all the facts and figures are scattered throughout a multitude of sources, this is the first time I’ve seen all the information laid out in a coherent, comprehensive fashion. That alone would be worth the price of the book.

But wait…are you curious about museums in the US and throughout the world that amass and analyze bones? Quigley quotes her copious correspondence with curators about their collections and the crises they face. She describes sacred spaces decorated with bones (full disclosure: even quoting my essay on the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora from Morbid Curiosity #3), Hythe Church, the Paris Catacombs, St. Mary’s Monastery in Sinai, the Mütter Museum, the National Museums of Health and Medicine, and the Vietnamese trophy skulls brought back by American servicemen.

A great deal of the book discusses in various ways the impact of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and its effect on collections of indigenous bones both in this country and elsewhere. While Quigley’s horror at the loss of the information contained in these native bones is quite clear, she doesn’t shy from the often horrific (and sometimes murderous) ways in which the native skeletons were collected. With so many collections in flux—or in jeopardy—across the world, Quigley’s book takes on an urgent sense of documenting a reservoir of information on the brink of evaporation.

Drawing on sources formerly reviewed in Morbid Curiosity and a vast array of personal correspondence, Quigley provides an invaluable compilation, ranging over topics from archaeology, defleshment and preparation of skeletons, the sale of human bones, institutions which collect and examine bones, the Bone Room, the Body Farm, historic sites (including the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Dickson Mounds Museum), the Cappuchin catacombs, etc., etc. You must own this book. You can pretty much open it to any page and become absorbed.

Get your own copy at Amazon: http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=cemettrave-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0786438886&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.

View all my reviews

You can follow Christine Quigley’s amazing and fascinating blog at Quigley’s Cabinet.

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Rome, Italy 00187
Telephone: 06/4871185
Decorations completed: 1764
Number of skeletons used to decorate the chapels: 4000
Size: 6 small rooms
Open: 9-noon, 3-6 p.m. Closed Thursdays.
Admission: small donation

From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church doesn’t look like much. One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the crypt of the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Instead, you must climb a flight of stairs to find a small plaque pointing toward the Coemeterium.

The Capuchin monks separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchins wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic with a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.

Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.

In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a 60-meter corridor.

Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the official brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest arranged the bones.

These days, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb still dominates the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugs the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse is nearly naked: his shroud slips down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression is impossible to gauge. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom is the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.

It’s immediately apparent that the monks tried to use as many bones as possible, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes.

The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — serves as the cemetery’s mass chapel. Its altarpiece depicts Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stands on her knee, his nakedness shielded a wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raise souls out of the flames of purgatory.

Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls is decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.

In the tympanum of the central niche hangs an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looks darker in color, as if the sands of time have all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, draws the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolize wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, the bone art seems lighthearted. Time flies, indeed.

Ornaments made of bones continue overhead. A garden of ribs suggests furrows of earth, where tulips bloom into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones comes to a point, from which descends a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones.

Next comes the Crypt of the Pelvises, followed by the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones. That room’s centerpiece is two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders and affixed to the back wall. The arm on top is bare; the other wears a rough brown sleeve. Their skin has dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protrude through their outstretched fingertips. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.

The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, is the most ornately decorated. Complete skeletons of two children lounge over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reach up toward an adult skull. One child holds a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balances a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.

A third small skeleton lies flat against the ceiling. He holds a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swings a scale whose cups are skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. He is the least threatening death figure I’ve ever seen. Even his grin looks wistful.

Useful Links:

The official website.

Information on the Church above.

The Lonely Planet site has a map.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian