For my birthday last weekend, my husband Mason bought me a book I’d only seen mentioned on the internet. We were in the Wacko store in Hollywood and I missed it the first time I looked over the rack, but he sent me back to give the highlighted new books another look. That time, I picked up the book without even cracking its cover. I wanted it so strongly that my arms quivered as I clutched it to my chest.
It’s called The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. On its cover is an amazing photo of the bones of Saint Pancratius standing in gilded armor. Inside it’s so full of color photos that the book is really heavy. There are essays early charnel houses, the “Counter-Reformation Macabre,” “Spiritualism and Mythology in the Bone Pile,” and a chapter on “Ossuaries as Commemorative Sites,” which includes the skulls taken from Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
I waited to page through the book until we got back to our host’s house. It’s filled on one amazing place after another. There were a lot I’ve visited — the Cappuchin catacombs of Rome, the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora, the Paris ossuary — but I’ve never gotten so close to the bones or taken such lovely photos.
There were so many, many places I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit: the mummies of Guanajuato, the Cappuchin catacombs in Palermo, and the catacombs of the monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru. And all the places I’ve never heard of before: the Capela dos Ossos in Campo Maior (Portugal), the Crypt of St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe (which I didn’t realize was in England), the Chapel of Skills in Czermna, Poland. I was almost ill with envy that the author and photographer Paul Koudounaris had been able to take such a world-spanning journey to see so many lovely and thought-provoking things in person.
Some of the photos were intense, even for me: the plague crucifix covered in running sores, the bug-eaten corpses in the Chiesa dei Morti in Urbania. I had a moment of vertigo as I tried to tally up all the skeletons displayed in these pictures. There are a lot of dead people in this world on display.
There’s nothing like a memento mori to brighten a birthday. The Empire of Death is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.
It’s hard for me to think about cemeteries as scary. I haven’t ever had any truly frightening things happen to me in a graveyard (yet), but I certainly have gotten good and spooked a couple of times.
I’ve created a list of cemeteries connected to traditionally scary things — ghosts, vampires, mummies, voodoo — and some which encompass more modern fears: natural disaster, plague, claustrophobia. Let me know what’s scariest for you. And if you’d like links, let me know that, too.
Feel free to add anywhere I’ve missed — or tell your own TRUE spooky story — in the comments.
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.
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.
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