After the Flesh
Teddy asks: Can you talk a little bit about the history of charnel houses? I feel like I always hear this word as a literary cliché, particularly in depictions of war, but know less about the practices behind it. I’d love to hear more about how components of this are reflected in modern-day burial practices as well.
The word charnel comes from the same roots as carnal and carnival—the Latin carn- or caro, meaning flesh. In the context of a charnel house, however, the flesh is no longer involved.
A charnel house is a vault or building used to store skeletal remains, otherwise known as an ossuary. The catacombs of Paris are a well-known example. Others include the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic and the Skull Tower of Niš, Serbia (which is the coolest name I’ve encountered in a while).
Charnel houses are most often found in places where graves are reused, either because ground is scarce or difficult to dig, or because the influx of new occupants has outpaced the capacity of the cemeteries. Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula maintains a working charnel house, as does Kkottongnae Village in South Korea.
Many countries in Europe have adopted the practice of reusing grave space. I’ve found articles discussing the “lift and deepen” method suggested in the UK, which means that a grave may be exhumed, deepened, and the original occupant reburied with a new tenant above them. I’m uncertain if this solution was ever put into practice, however. Other solutions include moving old remains to mass graves, ossuaries, or mausoleum niches, or cremating the remains and either returning them to their families or placing them in a columbarium. One problem with short-term grave leases, however, is that decomposition doesn’t follow a rigid deadline.
Porto, Portugal, for example, found that over half of the bodies in their cemetery were not fully decomposed upon initial exhumation, but instead were naturally mummifying. According to an article by Marianne Guenot in the Insider: “Per the law, the body can only be moved if it has decomposed so that it is just a skeleton, with no remaining soft tissue. To check this, gravediggers have to dig up the body to look at it. If it isn’t decomposed enough, it gets buried again and the process repeats every two years until it is.”
I don’t mean to make light of what is assuredly an unpleasant process for the families involved, but it’s stressful enough using a public restroom with people waiting outside. I can’t imagine having someone repeatedly knock on my casket while I’m trying to putrefy in peace.
North America also has a history of charnel houses. Ossuary burial was practiced by the indigenous cultures of the Southeast, Middle Atlantic, and elsewhere. I don’t know enough about these cultures to discuss them, however, and would rather not spread outdated or insulting misinformation with a shallow Google search.
I find ossuaries beautiful, and would be delighted if the US adopted more skeleton-friendly options for final disposition. Not only is there cultural anti-bone prejudice to overcome, however, but as places like Porto show, the logistics can be tricky. Not to mention, as a citizen of Austin, Texas, my bones—and all the rest of me—are already being priced out of my usual haunts by an influx of corporations and real estate investors. Being buried the first time is expensive enough in America; an extra ossuary surcharge is not what most families need. I will continue to dream of a utopia where all the dead are equal and funeral options aren’t so cost-prohibitive.
The year winds down again. Nights grow cold and long. Spectral voices carry on the wind, and bony fingers tap ever-so-softly at the window panes. Distract the restless dead with questions, lest they ask too much of you!
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.