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What is a Charnel House?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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A charnel house is a facility where bones and bodies are stored, either in the short or long term. The term “charnel house” is also used to refer more generally to a place filled with death, destruction, and suffering; for example, a plague house might be called a “charnel house.” Working charnel houses are not uncommon in certain parts of the world, and numerous historical examples can be found near churches and monasteries. Charnel houses do not have to be gloomy; the famous Bone Church at Sedlec in the Czech Republic, for example, is actually rather nice, according to some visitors.

The original function of a charnel house was probably purely pragmatic. In some cases, bodies needed to be stored above ground before burial because the ground was too hard to dig at certain times of the year, or because gravediggers were not readily available. Bodies were also stored until they reached the state of putrefaction to ensure that they were dead, in some cultures.

On the other end of the spectrum, charnel houses were used to store bones which were dug up. Even the most well organized graveyard can experience bone migration, and historically bones which were encountered while digging graves were stored in a charnel house. In this way, the remains could be stored in a respectful manner even if the original owner could not be identified. In some cultures, remains are actually deliberately disinterred for religious reasons, in which case they may be stored in individual ossuary boxes or niches in a charnel house.

In other cases, people use a charnel house to store older remains since they have a limited space in which to bury people. In these instances, bodies are buried until their spaces are needed, and then they are respectfully disinterred and moved to a charnel house. One of the world's most famous charnel houses is at Saint Catherine's Monastery, a monastery which is surrounded by rocky, dry ground which is difficult to dig. Visitors to the monastery can visit the charnel house, which is filled with bones from monks who have served and died there.

A charnel house is not quite the same thing as a tomb or mausoleum, unless one is referring to a group tomb. Charnel houses are usually set up in a way which encourages the direct contemplation of bones, while many tombs and mausoleums are tightly sealed to conceal their occupants. A charnel house may also include a mixture of bones from a wide assortment of people, rather than bones from related individuals, as is usually the case with a group tomb. Some more poignant examples of charnel houses include several bone-filled homes in Rwanda which have been maintained by the government as memorial sites to remind people of the genocide which occurred there in 1994.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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