Home > Uncategorized > The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

Building off my last post, this automatically posted post will deal with more bones. However these bones are treated in a far different way, some may find it fascinating, some may have nightmares. Grow up you weenie.

If you are descended from Europeans, you share in a rich Christian heritage that you can’t escape. Certain things that seem normal to us, are strange to others. In the previous post, Buddhists in Vietnam were exhuming the bones of loved ones and bringing them back home in a rich and ancient process, but a very odd thing to do by western standards.

Except it really isn’t. The fact is, it is common all over the world for the bones of the dead to be repackaged after the flesh has moved on, usually to make room for other bodies, ones whose souls have more recently departed. The major difference in the west is it isn’t often a family coming to get the bones, simply a worker making room in the same ay he might mow the lawn or trim hedges. In fact, the custom from Vietnam will seem very tame compared to the photos and brief explanations below.

Crypt Chapel -Sta. Maria Della Concezione Dei Cappuccini - Rome

Former Capuchin Friars/Monks - Sta. Maria Della Concezione Dei Cappuccini - Rome

This crypt, under the church of a still functioning monastery, is clearly exceptional for the funereal art you see above. Far from being seen as disrespectful to the dead, the monks would, and still do, come down into the crypt for periods of reflection and contemplation. It is rare, even among the thousands of ossuary’s in Europe, to see the level of artistry and meaning you see here. From the position this picture was taken if you looked straight up, you would see my favorite display in this whole crypt, have a look…

Clearly a harbinger of death, the figure we now would recognize as the grim reaper.

This is the last picture from this Monastery I’m going to put up here, but notice what this reaper is holding. Scythe, yes, the other thing… scales, scales of justice in fact. The reaper, the personification of death, has only rarely been seen as unfair or malevolent, usually this personification of death is held as the figure who helps you along, to the other side. It’s important to note this because I am not aware of any art like this depicting the Devil/Satan, especially not on consecrated grounds. Death seen not as an adversary, but a friend, an assistant.

There are some 4500 monks interred in that crypt, along with countless other remains of the poor or indignant unable to afford a burial on their own, the monks took care of them, monasteries of old were like the welfare systems of today, excepting of course the fact that they were actually effective, but I digress.

Certainly everyone has heard of the Catacombs of Paris and Rome. In Paris, 300 km of tunnels, with tens of thousands of skeletons neatly stacked along walls and in chambers off to the sides, these sometimes being filled from floor to ceiling, front to back with human bones. Something like this:

Ossuary, Parisian Catacombs - 1804 AD

No, your eyes are not deceiving you it says 1804. The catacombs in Paris are not some Medieval or Dark Ages relic of past strange customs, in Paris, they are from a period of only 30 years or so in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. About the time America was finally settling down. Not, so long ago really. Even more strange than art made from bones and rooms filled with them, at least to me, are the many examples of architectural features being simulated with bones, have a look at this pillar:

Simulated pillar- Parisian Catacombs - c. 1795 AD

While the Catacombs of Paris are famous, I suppose the ones in Rome are less so, so it may be forgivable if they aren’t known to you. It’s a shame, because as interesting as Paris’s are, Rome’s are much, much older, more varied and in the majority of cases not a response to a lack of land, but in response to persecution by the pagan Romans. See? Much more interesting than just running out of room.

Christianity didn’t become the Roman state religion until 380 AD, a span of 320 years or so where being christian could mean big trouble, as Saint Peter found out when he was crucified upside down (maybe). St. Peter himself was not so long ago discovered, under the alter of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, of all places. It was long thought that the site of the original Roman church, “Old Saint Peter’s”, was picked because of the Saints remains, but the church has been replaced multiple times since and it was a real surprise when he turned up in the catacombs beneath the Basilica in the mid 20th century.

As I mentioned, the catacombs in Rome were built to evade Roman detection and their creation and use dropped off after Christianity became the Roman state religion. These truly are a marvel of human ingenuity. In Paris, everything is more or less on one level. In Rome, there can be as many as 4 or 5 levels, connected by steep narrow staircases and entirely excavated by hand, and with little or no slave labor.

Pretty Impressive. Another significant difference is that they were not just places to store or deposit the dead, they became places of worship on particular days. A martyrs resting place would often spur others to expand the immediate area so they could be buried nearby. You also actually see burials, they would dig a shelf out and bury the body there, usually sealing the cavity afterward and adding an inscription. You can see this fairly well here:

Sandstone Burial Gallery - Rome 2nd Century AD

To wrap it up, the treatment of the dead has always been of the utmost importance to humans. Not simply so the dead may be remembered or venerated (or punished) but also for sanitary reasons. When compared to Vietnamese Buddhists retrieving their loved ones remains after 3 years, it makes that practice seem kind of boring compared to the things we have done here in the west.

But not as boring as Native Americans.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2012/01/02 at 14:59

    The title quote is Shakespeare. I forgot to add that and it’s tough to do on my phone.

  2. 2012/01/03 at 15:06

    Another thing I neglected to mention is ancestor worship, which is common in Asia and other places in the “east”. That is much of the reason for the different treatment of remains.

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