In many parts of the world, the bones of the deceased are displayed in chapels called ossuaries, seemingly for the edification of the living, a reminder of mortality. One of the most macabre is the Capuchin crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome, Italy. I was lucky enough to have visited the crypt, which contains the skeletal remains of 4,000 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars.
When the monks arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars with them and placed them in the crypt below the church. By order of Pope Urban VIII soil was brought from Jerusalem for the crypt. Fr. Michael of Bergamo supervised the placement of the bones in the crypt in intricate patterns. Large numbers of bones are nailed to the walls, many are piled high, and some hang from the ceiling as light fixtures.
As monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly-deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly-reclaimed bones were added to the decorative motifs. Bodies typically spent thirty years decomposing in the soil, before being exhumed. There are six rooms in the crypt, five featuring a unique display of human bones believed to have been taken from the bodies of friars who had died between 1528 and 1870.
The day I visited the crypt a dour old Capuchin friar collected a modest admittance fee from me and silently pointed the way down to the crypt. I thought he was pretty spooky but the crypt was spookier. In the still and silent rooms, leg and arm bones, ribs and pelvises, grinning skulls completely surrounded me. They were arranged on the ceiling in floral wreaths and displayed along the walls in amazing patterns.
In at least one room, complete skeletons clad in brown monk’s robes stood against the wall, torsos drooping forward, the dusty, eyeless skulls peeking out from beneath their hoods. Some skeletons reclined in grizzly sleep upon platforms made entirely from bones. In one room a skeleton held a scythe in its right hand, the symbol of Death which cuts all down like grass, and in its left hand, a set of scales symbolizing the good and evil deeds weighed by God when he judges the human soul. A placard in five languages declared: "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..." It is no wonder that the Marquis de Sade thought his 1775 visit to the crypt was worth the effort.
As I stood in the crypt, the dark, dusty bones surrounding me, the skulls staring at me sightlessly, I could feel my skin prickling, the hairs at the back of my neck rising. I had the wild sensation that if I suddenly turned around I would find one of those dead monks standing right behind me. It seemed entirely plausible to me that the spirits of those dead friars were accessible to those who would listen . . . and listen I did. When I thought my senses could not take any more I hastened back up stairs and out into the noisy and bustling traffic of Rome. In the brilliant daylight, I gulped in the polluted air of Rome as though it was the breath of life.
Here are pictures of some other famous European ossuaries:
|Capela dos Osos - Evora, Portugal|
|Capuchin cataciombs - Palermo, Sicily|
COMING SOON: “The Phantom Zone: Altered States and Paranormal Experiences” by Dr. Andrew Nichols
Dr. Andrew Nichols is Director of the American Institute of Parapsychology, and has been a professor of psychology for many years. He holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and is the author, co-author or editor of more than 50 research papers, popular articles and books on paranormal topics, including Ghost Detective: Adventures of a Parapsychologist (2004, Cosmic Pantheon Press, Harper’s Ferry, WV), Haunted Houses (2006, Capstone Press, Mankato, MN), and Ghosts, Spirits, & Hauntings (2011, New Page Books, Pompton Plains, NJ). Andrew has investigated more than 600 cases of reported haunted houses and poltergeists, and in 1999 was co-recipient of the only academic grant ever awarded to study hauntings, awarded by the Psychological Institute of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Andrew currently lives in Gainesville Florida, where he maintains a private practice in parapsychology, providing counseling for individuals experiencing psychic or paranormal occurrences.
I’m excited to have noted parapsychologist Dr. Andrew Nichols guest blogging on my site. Stay tuned for his article.