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July 28, 2006



I remember my first visit to the "bone church" in Roma...I was...well, shocked, amazed, fascinated. Curiously, or perhaps uncuriously, I was in no way moved to prayer. However, many of the Eastern Europeans I was traveling with where. I guess we really are conditioned by cultural mores very deeply---too bad we in the US have abandoned all pretenses of our Western cultural richness in the construction of many new churches.


Isn't it a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead? It seems that by decorating with someone's bones they were not doing that even if the decorations were in a church. I don't consider the person burried if he was turned into a chandelier.


Just goes to show you, even goths have a place in the Universal Church!

(Can you get more goth than the Church that invented the gothic aesthetic?)

That skull on the far left looks very familiar.


perhaps the movement towards using human remains in churchs was somewhat like the current progressive movement to make "worship spaces" more clear and less, well, churchy.

maybe it's a good thing that this innovation died. hopefully the present innovations will be abandoned too. :)


Hmmm, I'd thought that such church ossuaries contained the bones of monks, whose utter humility was permanently made visible in this ongoing giving of themselves to Him.

Gustavo Amaral

Such a construction is made to remember us how short is our life, and the urgency of conversion.

In that chapel in Portugul, on top of the front door, you can read (Port.) "Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos", which means "We bones which are here, for yours we´re waiting."

Eric G.

Maybe it's the Sicilian in me, but I've always found this kinda stuff to be really, really cool. Maybe we can decorate Saint Bob's with the skulls of Modernists, liturgists, and liturgical dancers? We won't be able to use the bishops for their spines, though . . .

Vince C

"We won't be able to use the bishops for their spines, though . . ."

LOL! To be fair, with some notable exceptions, of course.

Fr. Philip, OP

I have to admit that this sort of thing arouses my long-dormant Prot tendencies to middle-class American ecclesial aesthetics. Give me a nice wood frame church with a steeple and a bell and I'm happy. We will keep the skulls, the rib bones, and the pelvises in the graveyard where they belong...(shudder)

Fr. Philip, OP


True, the spongy tissue that seems to replace the spinal column upon receiving a mitre wouldn't last long as decoration, however the amazingly thick skulls of most VOTF types would be ideal!

The Waffling Anglican

I can just picture the newly resurrected walking around looking for their skulls when someone points to the ceiling. "WHAT! They made a LAMP out of it!!!"

Tim J.

Actually, I really like this. I want one in MY diocese.

Memento Mori, and all that. We need to be reminded often, and in the strongest terms of the fact that this life is a very temporary gig.

It ought to make anyone more humble to see the bones of their forebears hanging on the ceiling.

"Who are you, oh man?..."

Tim J.

Sorry, that's - "Who are you, O man...?"

Oh man ....

I didn't know that there were more than one of these.


Just think on how it's gonna look on the day of the Resurrection of the Dead when God will reassemble those bodies piece by piece....


Something like that could never be in America. It wouldn't survive Halloween! :)

francis 03

Y'know, when you think about early Christians worshipping in the Catacombs, right next to the remains of their honored dead (including many martyrs), it makes sense how they would have felt kind of lonely building churches without any relics in them. Now, I admit it's a long step from that to this, but. . . .

Michael and Katerina

Great blog...we just linked to it at Evangelical Catholicism (http://evangelical-catholicism.blogspot.com). Keep up the great work!

J.R. Stoodley

I don't have problems with burrying the dead under the Church floor or in pillars or in the alter itself (for great saints), but this? It seems very disrespectful to me. My main problem is not the display of the bones but the dismemberment of the bodies and making them annonymous decorations on the wall. If you want a Memento Mori paint a picture of a scull, don't yank one of a dead neck and glue it to the wall.

There is a difference between reverent, energetic, barbaric, actual gothic (my favorate style actually) and this kind of morbidity. Fine, remind me that I will die, but don't chill the blood so that I forget that it is good to live. What happened to "God is light, and in him there is no darkness"?

Maybe it is just my cultural prejudice and I do not perceive the good in this, or how the good outways the bad. In any case I'm with Fr. Philip, I'll take a little white church with a steeple (like the one I went to as a little kid) over this any day.

Paul R. Hoffer

"Alas, Poor Horatio...I didn't know that they were going to use you as a cornerstone..."


I like these churches because they are a reminder of how our Catholic ancestors were used to and expected death. I am well aware that older mausoleums in North America also followed the custom of pushing aside the bones of the old dead to make way for the more recent body (or bodies). I do not find the display of these bones to be disrespectful. Quite to the contrary, since even in death they are part of the Church.

Then again, I understand why it is shocking. I have run into more and more American families who prefer not to have a viewing or a wake for their dead. One of my cousins (a Catholic) even specified cremation and a scattering of his ashes rather than burial service or any sort of memorial marker, although he had a funeral Mass.

I think a couple of co-workers hit the nail on the head when they called cemetaries "a waste of good land" and "depressing" and a reminder no one needs. (Death is that elephant in the room that everyone ignores.) Their solution? Cremate everyone and periodically take the crematorium's ashes to the local landfill. I like it: everyone will end up with all the broken toys and useless junk we accumulate, no?



Your co-workers idea (for landfills instead of cemetaries) is more disturbing than the "bone chaapel" (and the bone chapel is friggin' disturbing to me). A world where we don't face our own mortality nor respect (nor even REMEMBER) our dead ....

shudder ....

Sounds like Los Angeles.

J.R. Stoodley

I agree with Jared on that one.

Also, I meant to mention how, as an abstract principle that may or may not be applicable here, it does not make sense to say that just because Catholics did it in the past it must be ok. What if future generations applied that principle to our generation? Previous generations were no less capable of making mistakes.


Doesn't creep me that much, But then again i'm used to see people buried inside Churches (in(pillars, floors...). Probably a Philippine quirk.

Eric Giunta

Because, Mr. Stoodley, there is nothing intrinsicaly immoral about decorating a church with human remains. This is not an opinion, but an objective fact.

That decorating a church with human remains may or may not be suited to a particular mileu is a subjective judgement, however.


I agree that these ossuaries are a bit problematic. But I like what Honora said about these monks serving the church even in death. Aside from being a reminder of mortality and all that, they are a concrete reminder that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit.

J.R. Stoodley

Eric Giunta,

Is desecrating the bodies of the dead intrinsically immoral?

What about the issue of giving scandal to others? That church looks about as Satanic as can be to the untrained eye. What a wonderful picture of Catholicism! Granted that would not have been such an issue at the time they were created, but still.

I'm not trying to make this an arguement and I'm not commiting to the view that it is wrong, I'm just throwing ideas out there.


Wow, we have a lot of limp-wristed WUSSES reading this blog, apparently. If you can't appreciate the bone chapel, then you're a Protestant pansy and you need to quit your whining.


"(Can you get more goth than the Church that invented the gothic aesthetic?)"

Absolutely. There is absolutely nothing more goth than Catholicism, when practiced in its traditional form. Not the modernist, wussified version, of course.

Eric G.

C'mon Mr. Stoodley.

1) "Desecration" is a lot like "modesty". What exactly constitutes either of them is cultually conditioned. There is no absolute. Obviously what elicits undue sexual arousal among 21st century Americans will not be the same as that which elicits it in the jungles of some African country. Ditto for desecration. What once culture considers improper will not be what another does. There is no moral precept which, by either divine revelation or human reason, would preclude showcasing a corpse, in and of itself; again, context is everything.

2) It's not out job to accomidate every person who might take scandal to someone. There are parameters; if a person is scandalized by my being Catholic, or not having sex with animals, I'm not going to apostasize or start making love to my goldfish.

Likewise, there is absolutely no reason on God's green earth why a rational person would take scandal at these centuries-old monuments of church architecture, since they cannot articulate a single objective argument against them, other than "I'm not used to this and it feels strange to me."

Satanic?! Again, context is everything. A solemn Catholic liturgy resembles pagan worswhip, or even a Satanic Black Mass, to the Fundamentalist Protestant. Upon education, there is no reason why the rational Protestant would hold to such views.

There's nothing Satanic about the human body, living or dead.


Thanks, Stoodley, for making opponents of the Bone Chapel look ridiculous. That leaves very little work for me to do.

J.R. Stoodley

Inquisitor Generalis,

Again, I have not definitively decided I am against the "Bone Chapel." Perhaps the reason why I may make opponents of it look ridiculous is that I just gave my initial impression and then threw some ideas out there for debate. I am not actively trying to argue against it.

Your Traditionalist Majesty must know that his attitude does not screem Christian love. In fact, if I may be so bold, you generally succeed in making any position you take seem evil. That does not mean that you or the position is evil but your attitude makes it seem that way. At least that is how it seems to this limp-wristed wuss. You probably don't give a Neo-Catholic's arse what I think, but I would suggest lightening up a bit on your "Evil Traditionalist" act if you want to get your message respected. Unless of course that is all there is to your message.



Were you just trying to stroke our ego or something? That was beautiful. We could not have asked for higher praise.

Frere Ignatius

I gotta agree with the Inquisitor here... y'all remind us of a bunch of delicate red-white-and-blue daylillies or something.

The Bone chapel is the coolest church ever. How can you not remember death when you've got a thighbone obscuring your view of the upper window? We're all going to be judged, and I imagine it'd be an incredible grace to have that as your ordinary chapel. You'd probably meditate on the sufferings of Hell and the last judgement at least 50x more than the rest of the faithful!

We wish that our Mass Centre had bones in it...

J.R. Stoodley

St. Theresa the Little Flower, pray for us.

Daylilly Stoodley

Sorry French enthusiasts, that should be "Thérèse."

I was afraid I.G. might react something like that, but at least it clarifies a few things.


I've always been accused of being morbid, but I really, really love the "bone chapels". Before I was Christian I liked them for their aesthetic value (the morbid angle), but now I find them so spiritually beautiful that I actually well-up with tears.

These monks gave their lives to God completely. They lived and breathed His Faith. In death, we've given them over to God even more fully, using their bodies, the most beautiful and valuable of physical creations, over to the worship of Him.

It touches a deep human chord in me, I think. We are to sacrifice valuable things, not worthless things, and giving up our flesh and bone that was crafted directly by God, and using them to worship Him, is simply incredibly beautiful.

It also shows a sense of "they've never left us", reinforcing the Communion of Saints, which is all too often lost in the modern world. We Catholics believe that when we worship, we literally worship alongside our ancestors. To do it in the flesh as well as the spirit makes it a much more profound reality for me.

Just my thoughts!

Peace and God bless!

Noah Nehm

Just a small correction: the ossuary is in Kutna Hora, although the Cisterian Monastery of Sedlec does figure highly in the history of Kutna Hora, which was one of the richest silver mines in Europe. If you can believe it, one of my first dates with my wife was to take a day trip to Kutna Hora, and we did visit the ossuary. More impressive, though is Cathedral of Saint Barbara (Chram svaty Barbory). Strikingly Beautiful.

By the way, the site I'm linking to has a virtual tour, which is really quite nice...

Jimmy Akin


I love to see spirited debate on the blog, and this is one where a folks can definitely take different points of view, but let's not get personal. Okay?



Jared Weber

Stoodley. Inquisitor.

Both ya'll need to chill.

Yup, I'm creeped out by bone chapel pics. Never been there and I MIGHT have a different reaction if I were to visit in person, but, yeah, skulls and stuff. Creepy to me. If that makes me wussy ... well, I probably AM a bit wussy when it comes to that stuff.

Does that mean I think it's WRONG to create such a thing? No, probably not. I just figure it's my personal limitation that I get creeped out by that kinda thing.

Whatever. It's probably my personal limitation.

BUT ... on my deathbed ... I don't wanna be seein' any of y'all with a hack saw, pot of boiling water, hot glue gun, and that look that says "Finally. I know just the place for that."

I'll haunt you. For real. I ain't playin'.

J.R. Stoodley



Why should we chill? We never even got upset! We even took Stoodley's comments as a compliment! By the way, thanks again, Stoodley!

J.R. Stoodley

Good morning everyone. With the coming of dawn in the wilderness of the northern Adirondack foothills, I reflect on how if hanging bones from the chandelier brings some people closer to God then perhaps it is worth it, and how if I.G. likes to be thought of evil then that is between him and God. I will just stay puzzled, and content with the fact that "when I am weak, then I am strong."

Jeffrey S. Smith

As far as I'm concerned, spoiled 21st century Americans are in no position to judge the quirks of past generations. While not to my personal taste, this type of thing reflects a common sense attitude. It recognizes the fact of death, where we hide a denial of it in the whole "funeral home" pseudo-ritual. It also a way to handle the waste of land displayed by the theme park cemetery. Very few people were permanently buried then. They were transferred to charnel houses so the land could be reused. It isn't for a generation that includes so many who think vampires are real (and want to be one.) to talk about being morbid.


Well, I've been to the one in Evora, Portugal, and I have to confess that I missed the bones in its structure...


Jared, you made me laugh so hard with your deathbed comment. Just for your own piece of mind: Bodies were interred and allowed to decay on their own, not dismembered or boiled. (In fact, wasn't that one of the scandals in the Crusades, where people were boiling bodies of noblemen and then shipping the bones home at exorbitant fees? But I digress...)

I agree with the idea that treating the dead like broken toys is creepy. I have always appreciated being able to visit my ancestors' resting place and to know that wherever I die, my family will make sure my body goes to rest with the others until God resurrects them.


"Alas, Poor Horatio...I didn't know that they were going to use you as a cornerstone..."

Well, remember that poor Yorick, (and eventually Horatio) would be dug up and what was left of him tossed into an unused corner of the cemetery--talk of respect for the dead! Cemeteries do fill up, after all, and to this day in much of the world old graves are declared empty and plowed under to make way for the new. These ossuaries at least display remains that might otherwise have met the same fate as objects of beauty, while reminding the viewer that 'all flesh is grass.'

My artistically-minded brother visited Sta. Maria della Concezione several years ago and remarked that he thought the arrangement of the bones was done 'very tastefully.'

David B.

To Euros it may be respectful, but I find that to be just really creepy. I mean, think about it "Hey, look! There's uncle Dan with a candle in his head!"


Is that anything like Uncle Fester with a light bulb in his mouth?


Americans, in general, are wimps when it comes to dealing with the reminder of death. The comes from our wonderful US/Protestant heritage which would not look death in the face since they chose to go away from the Roman Catholic with the Protestant Reformation and all of the fruit that came of it (i.e. the American Revolution). Protestants hate the mention of death and last jusgement because they have the sneaking suspicion in the back of their mind that they are not quite sure who is right.

I think it great to have a constant reminder of our coming death and how we should in be preparation for it every moment. Those stupid NO Mass would look very trite and out of place in a chapel like that. Then again would you give those bones the kiss of peace?


Wish I could see into the minds of others--especially at the poker table!


Can't agree with you there, bvjmj. It was my distinct DISpleasure to run across a group of Lutheran junior high schoolers lying on graves at the Mackinaw Island Cemetery in '94. Their chaperones were cracking morbid jokes as they took photos.

There are some Americans who are "wimpy about death" just as there are some Christians who are wimpy about life.

David B.

I'm not a wimp about death, it's just that it creeps me out seeing other people's nekkid bones used as candle holders.

Bill, please stop posting with the inane one liners


MissJean only proves my point. One of the ways that people try to deny the gravity of their death is to make fun of it. To these people in your anecdotal contrivance death is a cheap thrill not a mortal reality.

One of the Benedictine rules is "To keep death before one's eyes daily." Daily Mass here would definitely do that for you.


Having been a Protestant for 40 years I'm not as dense as Mr Bill. I know what Protestants believe and teach, because I believed and taught it.

It's funny how many NO Catholics are becoming as dense as the Protestants hey so desire to follow.


I find it neither creepy, morbid nor disrespectful. I was particularly moved by the monstrance fashioned from human bones. What could display greater reverence for the human person than to make a repository for Lord Himself out of human relics.
After all, we are more precious than gold in God's eyes.


bvjmj, I guess you had to be there, but these kids were thinking about their own deaths. My anecdote doesn't really prove your point. My family tells jokes and stories and drink alcohol at wakes, too. Does that mean we're denying our mortality while sitting in the same room as our loved one's corpse? That's pretty hard to do, especially when some of our dead have been pretty gruesome (e.g. fiery motorcycle crash).

On an aside, do we have any indication that we're not supposed to make fun of death? April Fools Day started as a way of recognizing Christ's big joke on Death, after all.


"The comes from our wonderful US/Protestant heritage which would not look death in the face
...I think it great to have a constant reminder of our coming death"

bvjmj, I'd have to disagree. Have you ever been to Boston or New England in general? They have colonial graves everywhere with morbid reminders of death, i.e. skulls.


wasn't this place featured in the "Dungeons & Dragons" movie?

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