By: Louk Vreeswijk

Apr 08 2018

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Category: Europe, Greece, Italy

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In one of the orthodox churches of Paleochora I saw to my surprise a big open stone reservoir filled with human bones: an ossuary inside the church in full view! I have understood that ossuaries came into use in places where graveyard space is scarce. After a few years in the ground the remains of a dead person would get dug up so that the grave could be used again for a fresh dead body. Digging up was done on a special day like the death anniversary of the person in the presence of family members. The bones were then ceremoniously washed and cleaned, sometimes with wine, and placed in the ossuary while the skull – with name attached – was put in a separate room for skulls only. Not very different actually from the second burial practice among Australian Aborigines, although in their case it’s not lack of space that is at the origin of their reburial ceremonies.

Roman Catholicism also knows the use of ossuaries. When the dead person was a religious dignitary, or maybe even a suspected future saint, the bones would receive special treatment and not be thrown in a box mixed with those of ordinary people.

Human skull, Arezzo, Italy 2004

This skull in its glass box that I once saw in a church in Arezzo is surely not of some bungler or other, nor of a heretic who deserved to be muzzled!

Photo of the week: Ossuary inside a church, Paleochora, Aegina, Greece 2013

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