It’s Lent, a season of repentance and reflection on one’s own mortality. It seems appropriate, therefore, that archaeologists in Belgium have announced a rather grizzly discovery. As they excavated the grounds of the Church of St. Bavo’s Cathedral, scientists stumbled across some walls constructed from the human bones. The remains—mostly the thigh and shin bones of adults—are thought to have come from a graveyard that was cleared during the sixteenth century. Christians, like many other religious and social groups, tend to treat corpses with a high degree of respect, but this discovery isn’t the only example of a church built using the remains of the faithful dead. These quaint old-world chapels and churches conceal some macabre secrets.
The Belgian bone-walls were unearthed by Dutch company Ruben Willaert Restoration and Archaeology, which was preparing for the construction of a new visitor’s center. Radiocarbon analysis of the remains suggests that they belong to individuals who died in the latter half of the 15th century but it is likely that the walls were built in the 17th or early 18th century. Janiek De Gryse, an archaeologist on staff at Ruben Willaert, told Livescience that the walls of bones were almost certainly built after an old graveyard was cleared out to make room for newer construction.
They needed to make room; the cemetery was full; so they moved the bones. Historical records support his theory: the cemetery was cleared out twice, once in the early 16th century and a second time in 1784. “The skeletons cannot just be thrown away,” said de Gryse “Given that the faithful believed in a resurrection of the body.” Thus, instead, they were cemented into the foundations of the religious structures themselves.
The bones appear to come from both adult men and women, but do not seem to include the remains of children. Nor were smaller, more fragile, bones like vertebrae, ribs, hand, or feet found among the remains. Some shattered skulls are in the mix but, strangely, no arm bones are found in the structure. De Gryse is unsure if the inclusion of only leg bones is a matter of practicality (the bones could be arranged more compactly) or if there is a theological dimension at play here.
Theologically speaking bones play an important role in the way that Christians think about the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. While many modern Christians tend to imagine that only their spirits or souls exist after death and in heaven, the Bible and Christian creeds anticipate a much more literal and physical reconstitution of human bodies. Many of the scriptural texts used to support this idea refer to bones in particular. In the biblical book of Ezekiel the prophet sees a vision of a valley of dry bones coming to life and being encased in living flesh. Early Christians understand this vision to be a prediction of the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgment. In a similar way, after he is resurrected from the dead in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points to his flesh and bones as evidence that he is truly alive (Luke 24:39). Because, unlike flesh, bones survived the process of decay it’s easy to see why ancient people focused on the bones as the corporeal site of hopes for future resurrection.
The discovery is unique to Belgium, but not Christianity in general. The Kaplica Czaszek in Czermna, south-west Poland looks like just another chapel from the outside. Inside, however, is another story altogether. The skulls and legbones of some 3000 people have been carefully—you might even say, beautifully—arranged to form a repeating herringbone pattern on the ceilings and walls of the chapel. The design was the brainchild of a local priest, Vaclav Tomasek, who stumbled across a mass grave in the fields of Czermma. Following this unexpected discovery, he visited the shallow graves used to bury those who had died during the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648) and Silesian wars (in 18th century) as well as the mass graves for victims of plague and cholera. Fearing that these individuals had been forgotten, Tomasek collected and cleaned the bones and meticulously embedded them into the walls of the chapel at the end of the 18th century.
The purpose of the unusual décor was both to remind people of mortality and to emphasize the unity and togetherness that people would find in the resurrection and world to come. Interestingly, Tomasek placed the bones of the most important victims, together with those who were struck by down disease on the chapel’s altar. These pride-of-place remains include the skull of the town’s mayor, a skull deformed by syphilis, and the bones of a man who was thought to have been a giant. Rather than shuffling disability to the side; Tomasek showcased it. After his death in 1804, Tomasek’s own skull joined those on the altar.
While it’s not everyone’s dream to become interior décor for their local church after they die, the use of human bones in the construction of religious buildings has practical and theological aims. It allows skeletons to be arranged more compactly and it articulates the importance of the body in Christian hopes for the afterlife. While news stories often highlight the use of human remains in Central and Latin America, the unusual treatment of bones is a cross-cultural phenomenon.