All that remains… in the charnel house.

A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge

A Tour of BonesDenise Inge was an American who married an English clergyman. When he became Bishop of Worcester they moved there, and Denise found that they would have to share their new home with a ‘charnel house’.

Wikipedia defines it thus: “A charnel house is a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored. They are often built near churches for depositing bones that are unearthed while digging graves. The term can also be used more generally as a description of a place filled with death and destruction.”

In Denise’s case, there was a big cellar attached to the house, with an uneven earth floor and full of heaps of bones. Living with the bones made Denise feel uneasy, so she and a friend devised a European tour to visit some more charnel houses to explore attitudes towards death and bone storage.

First they went to Poland and the hamlet of Czermna in former Silesia, where they found a happy welcome from B&B owner Barbara. The Skull Chapel in Czermna was created in 1776 when the parish priest out walking his dogs discovered bones poking through the ground. These were mass graves of the fallen from the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 and subeqent Silesian Wars (1740-63). It took the priest 28 years to build the chapel and finish collecting and cleaning the bones. She finds it very claustrophobic and when one of the nuns produces a skull cup, its resemblance to a chalice is almost too much.

The next charnel house on their tour was a more famous one – Sedlec in the Czech Republic, and inside it are even more challenging sights:

By Pudelek (Marcin Szala) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Pudelek (Marcin Szala) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the four towers is suspended, like a spook’s corona, what is perhaps Rint’s pièce de résistance: an enormous bone chandelier reputed to contain (many time over) every one of the two hundred and six bones in the human body. The chandelier hangs so near the four towers of bones that looking up all is one. Bone above me, bone around me, bone beside me, bone before me; thousands of disjointed bones orchestrated, prized and pieces, punctuated by the dark vacancies of socket and jaw.

Next they go to Hallstadt near Salzburg in Austria, where  the bones of the local dead are stored – annotated with name and dates, and painted with roses, oak leaves and other symbols by (probably) the last of the bone-painters.

Then too, there is colour here, and life, a kind of joy in the decorations and love in the naming. Each skull is known, is cherished or hated; at least related to another human being still alive. Their living stories and the stories of these dead intertwine in a quiet continuity of place and people that is completely unlike any of the charnel houses I have seen. Maybe that channelling of life is why I am not afraid.

The last charnel house on their trip was in Switzerland, at Naters, south of Interlaken and Denise is overcome by the majesty of the Alps. In a simple roadside shrine the bones are simply stacked, bleached, unadorned, unguarded, and Denise is stopped in her tracks – realising that death comes to us all, and allowing her to stop being frightened of the bones, to respect them instead.

In a tragic twist of fate, Denise Inge died of cancer as this book was published, but she wrote almost all of it before her diagnosis. She tells us straight up in her introduction though:

But this is not primarily a book about cancer and recovery. It’s too early for that. This is about facing the fear of death. Looking the greatest fears full in the face can open up the cupboards of your life and throw the dust out. I began to discover this even before the cancer came.

This is a book that celebrates life through facing up to death. It’s thoughtful, learned and emotional and knowing of the author’s own plight, very moving indeed. (9/10)


Source: Publisher – thank you. I shouldn’t have let this book linger on my shelves for so long.

Denise Inge, A Tour of Bones – Bloomsbury, 2014. Hardback, 224 pages.

6 thoughts on “All that remains… in the charnel house.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think I’d have to find out more about said bones’ provenance if I was going to live with them! As for that chapel – I’d voyeuristically love to see it and, hypocrite that I am, denounce it as gross… 😉

  1. I have no problems at all with human bones, having excavated such remains when on archaeological digs, but I recognise that many people are squeamish about them and that we have a cultural heritage that attaches great significance to them.

    I’m surprised though when there’s no reference to the practice of burning ancient bones when churchyards got too full (despite belief in the resurrection of bodies at Doomsday) which certainly happened in some parishes.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She was very specific in her short tour – looking only at charnel houses, not even the various catacombs where bones are stored. I’m not squeamish about handling real human bones – we often borrow some real ones at school, but I think my imagination might run riot with a heap of them in my cellar. 🙂

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