It’s a question we must all have considered at one time.
What would we do with our lives if we knew we had only a short time left to
enjoy them? A clergyman’s wife called Denise Inge faced that question in her
early fifties. She was told that she had terminal cancer. What did she do with
the time she had left? She set out to finish a book she had already started
about the ossuaries of Europe.
In plain English, ossuaries are “bone-houses”, or places
where the skeletons of the dead are collected when the flesh had rotted away.
When Denis Inge moved with her husband John to live near Worcester Cathedral,
where John had become the bishop, she discovered that their house lay directly
above an underground ossuary dating from the Middle Ages. There were thousands
of bones down there – skulls, spines, ribs, thigh-bones – that had been inside
living, breathing, blood-filled bodies.
Now the blood and the breath were gone. Only the bones
remained: stark, white and silent. Going into an ossuary is a powerful
experience, raising difficult questions about our own mortality and our own
purpose in life. Denise decided to visit more ossuaries and write a book about
her experiences. In the end the book was called A Tour of Bones. It
talks about her move to Worcester, her discovery of the bones beneath her
house, and then describes four ossuaries in Europe: Czermna in Poland; Sedlec
in the Czech Republic; Hallstatt in Austria; and Naters in Switzerland.
She had already started the book when she received her diagnosis
of terminal cancer. Suddenly what had been distant became shockingly near: the
time of her own death and of her own reduction to a collection of bones. She
had only a short space left to do all she wanted to do. She had to finish her
book and to describe how the diagnosis had affected her. Life, she said, had
not become more important to her, but more satisfying and full of sensation.
The diagnosis also helped her to understand the purpose of
ossuaries more clearly. They are not meant to be frightening places, but
reminders of what awaits us all. They can even provide us with comfort,
enabling us to see that our own lives are small and fleeting, only drops in the
vast river of humanity that flows from the distant past into the unknowable
future. At Sedlec, for example, some say that 70,000 skeletons have been
collected down the centuries. That’s an overwhelming number, too big to grasp,
but it’s only a tiny fraction of those who have died in the Czech region, let
alone the rest of Europe and the world.
The bones at Sedlec and other ossuaries are powerful not
only for their number, but also for their beauty. It may seem strange, but
bones can be beautiful things, like clean and permanent sculptures that emerge
from the ugliness and stench of rotting flesh. At Sedlac and some other
ossuaries, bones are even arranged as art, stacked together in strange patterns
or suspended from the ceiling of the ossuary like garlands. At Hallstatt,
skulls are painted with wreaths of roses or ivy and the name of the departed
person is painted across the bony forehead in Gothic script.
In different places, there are different customs. But
ossuaries in general are a Catholic tradition. Mainland Britain became
dominated by Protestantism, so bone-houses were no longer created here and were
no longer popular places to visit. Two coincidences brought Denise Inge, a
devout member of the Church of England, to the writing of her fascinating book.
The first coincidence prompted her to start the book: her move to Worcester and
into a house built above thousands of bones. The second coincidence allowed her
to write more deeply and movingly: the diagnosis of terminal cancer and the
thought that she, who was writing about skeletons, would soon join the silent
army that had fascinated her.