A Grave Conversation

I enjoy walking through cemeteries. I find them very peaceful, but they also make me think about the people there, and how they lived. They also make me think about how people commemorated death, and the remains of their loved ones and others. Death can be a slightly taboo subject in day to day chats, but I believe it is something that should be spoken about slightly more openly, which brought me to write this specific post, and I plan to explore in more detail in future posts.

Image: Gravestone, St Cuthbert’s Kirk, Edinburgh.
Photo credit: Lucy Glenny

Within some of my local cemeteries in Edinburgh there are several examples of quite beautifully carved stonework graves, with some older stones even having nature imposing on them like that above. Some stones include symbols such as Memento Mori (from the Latin – ‘remember that you [have to] die) inscriptions of skulls and other similar imagery, representing death.

Image: Grave of James Bailie (died 1746) with skull detail, Edinburgh St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard
Photo credit: Daniel Naczk, Wikimedia Commons

Most of this imagery is on the graves of those from the 17th and 18th centuries, and generally in Scotland and the UK interment below ground or within tombs and cremation is what is most known. But what other ways of commemorating the dead has there been? There is a lot we could talk about here, so I just want to touch on a few other such beliefs and ways of memorialising the dead.

Alongside burial, cremation is highly common in Scotland, and the typical communities I am based near. In some parts of Europe cremation was illegal before the 1700s but became more popular from around the 19th century, and in current modern times people commonly use a closed furnace at a crematorium.

However, the method of cremation itself is a very ancient tradition.

In 1968 in Lake Mungo, New South Wales, Australia, remains dating to around 42,000 years old were found, dubbed ‘Mungo Lady’. These remains confirm that they were ritually cremated, crushed and then burned again before being buried within Lake Mungo. It is also good to note that these remains have since been returned to the indigenous people of the Lake Mungo area in 1992 and repatriated in 2017.

In places such as India, within Hindu and Sikh religions, pyres have been used to cremate the dead. In my research, I also came across the now banned funeral custom of ‘Sati’. An ancient tradition practiced amongst some cultures in pre-modern regions of South Asia, wherein a widow sacrifices herself above her husband’s pyre while he was being cremated. Originally voluntary there has alleged to have been instances of forced practice, and even as recent as 1987 a Sati (Prevention) Act was introduced, due to isolated incidents. A good article on this topic can be found here.

But what of other burial places, other types of tombs and such, and how people observed death?

The last tradition that I am going to touch on is that of the ossuary.

Image: Bones inside the ossuary below the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Czech Republic.
Photo credit: Jan Kameníček, Wikimedia Commons

Between around the 16th to 19th centuries, some religious places, predominantly in Europe and in predominantly Catholic communities, constructed these ossuaries, with some ostentatious artwork using human bones.

The Paris catacombs are one of the most famous examples, holding the remains of around six million people. Another ossuary is that of Sedlec, shown in the images above and below.

Sedlec Ossuary is located below the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Czech Republic. It is said that in 1278 the abbot of Sedlec Cistercian Monastery was sent by the King of Bohemia to Jerusalem, bringing back soil from the believed site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, spreading it on the soil at Sedlec cemetery. This caused many wanting to be buried in the area.

Thousands of people were also said to be buried in the abbey cemetery due to deaths during the Black Death and the Hussite Wars in the 14th and 15th centuries respectively. When the Gothic church was built, many of the remains were moved and stacked into the ossuary in the basement of the building. However, in 1870, they hired a woodcarver named František Rint to arrange the bones in to more of an artistic and beautiful creation. Rint bleached and carved the bones and constructed different arrangements, from crosses and chains across doorways, to a whole coat of arms made from the remains. He even assembled a chandelier that is said to contain each bone of the human body, and also signed his name on one of the walls using some of the bones. The ossuary itself is now said to contain between 40,000 and 70,000 bones.

Image: Crest of the Schwarzenberg family, who employed František Rint to put the bones in order, at Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic.
Photo credit: Curious Exhibitions

The impact of such a place on viewers, either in person or via online images, will affect people in different ways. Often misunderstood imagery, so many questions could be asked, some people may find it serene while many find it more sinister. A beautiful but macabre place to commemorate these bones, and the people they belonged to, while also expressing deaths inevitability.

Sedlec cathedral and ossuary were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990s, and have become a popular tourist destination, but it is good to remember that it is still a place people in the area go to connect with family who have died, people from many years ago but also more recently. I am sure the majority of visitors would respect this.

To end this post, I want to use a quote from one of my favourite authors, who is an excellent go to for information on ossuaries and memento mori, Paul Koudounaris. In his book Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses he notes that “death as a concept is an intellectual construction that can vary from society to society, era to era”, with what may seem odd and macabre to the majority of modern day people, would be considered in a different way in other areas and time periods.

Further note: Death positivity and the idea of speaking openly about death and dying, and issues such as burials and other interments, and the human corpse, has become a recently popular movement. If you’d like to learn more about this, I’d highly suggest Caitlin Doughty and  The Order of the Good Death.

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