Paul Koudounaris previously published a book in which he shared extraordinary photos of the world’s most lavishly decorated skeletons.
The following excerpts are from his newest book, titled Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, which takes readers to the most macabre sites in the world.
1. Lampa, Peru
One of the most stunning displays of death is in the village of Lampa, Peru. A local nobleman who traced his lineage to the Spanish settlers who founded the town as a mining village petitioned the local church for permission to exhume their bones and use them to decorate his own tomb. The result: A deep silo with walls covered in skeletons maybe seem medieval in sentiment, but in fact was not constructed until the second half of the 20th century.
2. Waldsassen, Germany
The ultimate treatment for human remains is bejeweling the entire skeleton. This was popular during the 17th and 18th centuries in parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and remains of people thought to be holy would be treated in this way. This particular skeleton, in Waldsassen, Germany, was discovered in the Roman catacombs and believed to be that of a martyr — he was sent to Germany, covered in jewels, and set into an altar to inspire faith.
3. Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
The most famous of the charnel houses is at Sedlec, near Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic. Often called “The Bone Church,” it was a funerary chapel that was once part of a monastic property, and decorated entirely with bones from the local cemetery. Among its highlights are an 8-foot-wide chandelier, said to be composed with one of every bone in the human body.
4. Bangkok, Thailand
Some cultures decorate the bones themselves. This unusual display of golden skulls with golden cushions in their eye sockets is found at a charitable foundation in Bangkok, Thailand. The caters to the needs of poor people who cannot afford the costs of a funeral, and these skulls are the first dozen clients — preserved, gilded, and given a place of honor.
5. Rome, Italy
Mummies were also sometimes included in Italian charnel houses (church bone rooms). Up until the 19th century, most burials took place in churchyards, and when these cemetery areas were full, old burials would be removed to make space, and the bones stored. This display is found under the Capuchin monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, a multiroom crypt that combined architectural elements replicated in human bone with the mummified bodies of monks who had died in the monastery.
6. Opdas Burial Cave, The Philippines
Many other cultures have similar traditions for displaying the dead, especially in Asia, where burial caves were used to store large quantities of human bones. The Opdas Cave on central Luzon is the largest such cave in the Philippines, housing the remains of thousands of people. It was discovered when a local man believed he heard mysterious voices; he began to dig, and it turned out this burial cave was under his property.
7. Lombok Village, Indonesia
The most picturesque of all the Asian burial caves is found outside the village of Lombok, again on the island of Sulawesi. The center part of the cave features skulls set upon moss-covered rocks, and the surrounding area is covered in broken coffins filled with the bones of several generations of village residents.
8. Brno, Czech Republic
Mummies are also found under the Capuchin monastery in Brno, Czech Republic. These mummies were all brothers from the monastery and some date as far back as the 17th century. The monastery owned only one coffin, and it had a false bottom — the deceased would be carried away to a drying room and then released from the coffin, which would then be saved for the next funeral.
9. Palermo, Sicily
The largest collection of these mummies is in the crypt of the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, where over a thousand are preserved, making it the largest collection of mummified remains in the world. Known now as the Palermo Catacombs, the mazelike crypt contained different sections for different classes of people, including mummified infants and virgins. At one time there were four functioning altars for religious services set among the mummies.
10. Kolin, Czech Republic
There are many other highly elaborate church bone houses that are not famous, however. This one, at Kolín also in the Czech Republic, was constructed in the 18th century inside of a large, pyramid-shaped structure. It features a life-size crucifix against one of its impressive walls of bones.
11. Mount Abuna Yosef, Ethiopia
A mountain cave behind the church of Yemrehanna Kristos in Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest bone fields. For centuries, people came here to die, under the belief that the relics of a legendary king were present, and to die near them was to die in a blessed state. The back section of the cave is a sea of human body parts, piled high on top of one another.
12. Burgio, Sicily
Sitting upright in a coffin, this deteriorated mummy is one of several dozen found in the Capuchin monastery in Burgio, Sicily. It was common in Sicily through the 19th century to mummify your relatives and put them on display in the crypts of local churches. Such displays were signs of love and respect, and the living family members would visit the dead each year on All Souls’ Day.
13. Gangi, Sicily
Another large collection of Sicilian mummies is found in Gangi. Underneath the town’s oldest and largest church, former ecclesiastic staff were dehydrated and placed in niches, still wearing their vestments. Experiments carried out to treat their faces with wax in order to better preserve their likenesses only made the effect of the display more macabre when the wax slowly deteriorated.
14. Oria, Italy
These collections of mummies were not found solely in Sicily. In a crypt under the cathedral in Oria in Southern Italy, a entire mummified Confraternity of Death is preserved. During their lives, the members of this brotherhood performed charitable functions, in particular funerals for impoverished people. When the brothers themselves died, they were preserved and put on display.
15. Bua, Indonesia
A large burial cave complex is found on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, outside of the village of Bua, and contains several different chambers containing human bones. Funerals in this part of the island are large and extravagant affairs, and afterward the body is placed in a coffin and taken to a local cave. Over time, the wood rots away and the bones are exposed, to later be picked up and arranged by visitors.
16. Kete Kesu, Indonesia
Also on Sulawesi, large piles of human bones are found near the village of Kete Kesu. Here, they are not in a cave, but rather stacked along a mountain path leading to a cave mouth. Coffins are placed on wooden slats, and when they eventually deteriorate, the bones fall to the ground in heaps.
17. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The western part of South America is pockmarked with ancient necropoli, many featuring deteriorated mummies that are still in situ. This one is outside of the world’s largest salt flat at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Some of these South American mummies are up to 1,500 years old.
18. La Paz, Bolivia
The tradition of preserving human remains still exists in some parts of South America, particularly in Bolivia where skulls known as ñatitas are kept in some homes, particularly in La Paz. The souls attached to these skulls act as friends, helpers, servants, and guardians. They are kept in shrines, and various materials may be used to give them faux eyes, noses, and mouths.
19. La Paz, Bolivia
These skulls are not always confined to the home, however. Once a year, on Nov. 8, they’re taken by their owners to the chapel of La Paz’s Cemetery General. They attend a mass, and a giant celebration, the Fiesta de las Ñatitas, is held in their honor.
20. Hallstatt, Austria
Painted skulls like these were once common in small church parishes of in the German-speaking Alps, although now the only sizeable display is found in Hallstatt, Austria, where nearly 600 are preserved. The name of the deceased and date of death would be recorded on the forehead, often surrounded by flowers, crosses, and other decorative designs. The artists were usually the local gravediggers.