Since bone decays far more slowly than other human tissues, obtaining burial space in densely populated areas eventually becomes problematic. Historically in European cultures, individuals of high standing were buried within the church, others nearby outside. Those plots, however, were only rented, sometimes for a little as 20 years. After that, making space in the boneyard for the newly deceased necessitated removal of old skeletons. So the old bones were exhumed, sorted, stacked, and stored compactly in underground crypts or catacombs.
The largest one by far is in under Paris, where the bones of an estimated six million bodies are stashed in an extensive network of tunnels and chambers. Much of the city is built from the limestone blocks that were quarried from here. The passageways and rooms remained empty until the late 1700’s when cemetery storage of old bones rose to a crisis level.
Once the plans were made, it took over two years for a nightly procession of wagons to discretely deliver the bony remains from Paris’s cemeteries. This included at least two million skeletons from a single cemetery, one that had been in use for 600 years. Along the quarry’s corridors, the workers stacked thigh bones and skulls into retaining walls, behind which the other bones were unceremoniously tossed. To add a semblance of order, the workers placed marble plaques identifying the cemetery from which any given jumble of bones had originated.
Over the following centuries the Paris Catacombs have proven to be an enduring attraction. At first curiosity seekers, mostly royalty, were allowed to pop down only on several days a year. Now it is one of Paris’s most popular tourist magnets and is open 63 hours a week (closed on Christmas). Buying one of the limited number of advance-purchase tickets on-line may cut a typical two-hour wait in half. Once through the door, a staircase spirals down about six stories, and then the dimly lit tunnel meanders for approximately a mile. The floor and low ceiling are formed from calcium carbonate—limestone. The walls are calcium phosphate—skeletons.
The bones in the Paris Catacombs have little scientific value since they are jumbled, which makes it impossible to observe any trends regarding any individual’s state of health, nutrition, life span, or cause of death. Rather, the experience is a history lesson–a unique, strange, unforgettable, yet not-particularly-creepy (at least for me) window on Paris’s past.
A visit also provides insight into human nature. Tens of thousands of tourists annually descend into the earth to glimpse their own mortality. Forty-five minutes later and several blocks away from the entry, they spiral back up into sunlight. What awaits them? The Paris Catacombs gift shop.
Other old cities had similar bone storage problems but managed them differently. Rather than just stacking old bones, some churches began displaying the bones artfully. In Hallstatt, Austria, for instance, 1200 skulls are displayed on shelves. Sorted by family, half of them are painted with the owners’ names along with birth and death dates.
Other churches began using the bones as interior decorative elements. These “bone churches” exist in England, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic and at least three cities in Italy. I visited one in the lovely medieval town of Evora, Portugal, which is about 90 miles east of Lisbon.
In 16th Century Evora, the Franciscan monks confronted two problems. Storage space for old bones was in short supply. Also, the parishioners were living the high life because gold was pouring in from Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. In order to make a statement regarding the transient glories of worldly existence, the monks collected at least 5000 skeletons from local church yards and crypts and used them to decorate the vertical surfaces of a chapel. In case a parishioner might miss the point, the inscription in marble over the entryway translates as, “Our bones that are here await yours.”
Inside, all the walls are surfaced with bones. In some areas, arm and leg bones are pressed into plaster so that the length of each is visible. In other areas, the bones are viewed end on. Skulls liberally punctuate the geometric wall patterns and also define the edges of the columns and arches.
Overall there is a symmetrical and repeated contrast of dark and light. Strange as it may seem, I found it starkly beautiful. My wife, however, said she would wait outside while I finished taking pictures.