In Rome, Italy, there is a small church called Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The church itself is not that different to the many beautiful churches in Rome, but it is special because of what lies beneath it. After walking down two staircases underground, one is faced by a door leading to the Capuchin Crypt.
Once inside the crypt, one can see why it is so famous – it is an ossuary, the burial place of human skeletons. The Crypt is made of six small chapels, each decorated with the skeleton of over 4000 bodies. Ribcages are organised into hearts, thigh bones are used to frame pictures and tailbones are used extensively with skulls to produce elaborate works of art. Even the bones of the fingers are used to create elaborate patterns on the wall. The chapels also have intact skeletons still dressed in brown friar habits (religious robes) from the 17th century. They also contain the remains of babies.
The reason why some skeletons are dressed as friars is that most of the bodies are those of Capuchin friars, buried by their order under a church according the regulation of the Catholic Church. In 1631, Capuchin monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars and buried them in the crypt. As monks died over time, bodies that were buried for the longest were exhumed to make room for the new bodies. This led to the accumulation of thousands of thirty-year old skeletons and so the monks decided to honour those friars by decorating the chapel with their bones. Among the buried are also bodies of poor Romans whose bodies no one cared for.
In the last chapel of the crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, the central skeleton stands out as it is enclosed in an oval of femurs (thigh bone) and holding a scythe and a scale. It is a symbol of death, reminding those that gaze upon it that all humans are mortal in the face of time. The room also contains a plaque with the following message in five different languages:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”