A Trip to Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones)

Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones)

Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones)

Although our modern tastes in interior design have evolved since the Medieval days, it used to be quite fashionable to include human bones in buildings’ décor.

Throughout Europe, structures called ossuaries are a testament to this intriguing bit of history. Usually found outside of cathedrals, churches, or chapels, ossuaries are rooms lined floor to ceiling with the exhumed remains of hundreds of human bodies. They sound macabre, but these ossuaries are actually a lot more common than you’d think. Rome’s got one. There’s one in Spain. In Milan. Ireland, France, Austria, Portugal—these ossuaries are everywhere, thanks mostly to the far reach of the Catholic Church.

Actually, it makes plenty of logistical sense for the Church to use up old bones in this way. Besides the obvious feng shui boost, moving old bones above ground into chapels frees up precious real estate below ground in local cemeteries. This is Europe, after all; there’s no Wild West for them to expand to once their cemeteries (and cities) get too bloated.

And so, bone by bone, the Catholic Church went about recycling its deceased into dozens—maybe even hundreds—of bone buildings. Some people claim it’s a spiritual experience to see these ossuaries. Rather than macabre crypts full of decaying body parts, they see them as the physical embodiment of the souls of our departed loved ones.

Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones)

Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones)

Sentimentality aside, it’s needless to say that these ossuaries are definitely creepy. When I visited the Chapel of Bones in Faro, Portugal, my immediate response was of horror. There are some 1200 monks in that tiny little room. Some of their skulls were eyeing me from the ceiling. Their femurs protruded at odd angles from the walls. Countless unidentifiable bones filled in the gaps.

Just above the entrance to the chapel is a sign that reads, “Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you.” Quite a sobering thought, given the fate that befell the bones of the monks who make up the foundations of this death shrine.

I think the question it’s really asking is—what happens after death? Is the monks’ final resting place this morbid tomb? Or did the monks somehow escape this depressing fate, their spirits somewhere at least marginally better than an eerie tourist attraction?

I’m not religious or spiritual, and I definitely don’t believe in otherworldly souls, but it’s hard to see something like the Capela dos Ossos and not think about these things. If nothing else, it’s made me confident that I have no desire for my body to be buried after I die. I just can’t picture myself existing for all of eternity crammed so tightly with all those other people’s bones—I’ve always been a bit claustrophobic.

For me, it’ll have to be cremation—100%.


Joseph Winters

Joseph immersed himself in the culture of Northern Italy, a major departure from his small town Washington State roots. Clad in thrift store shorts, a pair of sneakers, and a T-shirt from the clearance section at REI, Joseph mispronounced his way through Versace, Gucci, and Gianfranco Lotti stores. “Dolce and Bananas?” he sputtered in Milan. “Giorgio Armonkey?” he stammered in Florence. By the time he got to Venice, he decided to get onto a gondola and keep his mouth shut about fashion. Interestingly, though, he had no problem saying “gelato,” “gnocchi,” or “biscotti” when placing his order in an Italian “ristorante.” Apart from his linguistic misadventures, Joseph toiled through the extensive Let’s Go “requirements” like seeing Michelangelo’s David or da Vinci’s The Last Supper, making it through the month mostly in one piece, despite only managing to memorize 114 of the 650 kinds of pasta he encountered.