A charnel house is a building, chamber, or other area in which bodies or bones are deposited, also known as a mortuary chapel. Charnel houses arose as a result of the limited areas available for cemeteries. When cemetery usage had reached its limits, the bodies, by then only bones, would be dug up and deposited in the charnel house, thus making room for new burials. For example, at St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where thousands of monks have lived and died over the centuries, the monks are buried in the small cemetery, later exhumed, and their bones placed in the crypt below the Chapel of St. Trifonio. The pile of skulls presents an imposing sight.
Charnel houses are fairly common. A Cornish (England) folktale tells of a wager in which a man offers to go into the parish charnel house and come out with a skull. As he picks one up a ghostly voice says, "That's mine." He drops it, and tries again a second and third time. Finally the man replies, "They can't all be yours," picks up another, and dashes out with it, winning the wager. His discomfited opponent then drops from the rafters. By speaking of the "parish" charnel house the story illustrates the widespread usage of such repositories.
Charnel houses can be found in many cultures and in many time periods, including the present. Late prehistoric peoples of Maryland saved the dead in charnel houses and periodically disposed of them in large mass graves. In Iroquoian and southeastern Algonquian Native American tribes corpses were first allowed to decompose and then placed in mortuaries, or charnel houses. They were then interred in an ossuary, a communal burial place for the bones, after a period of eight to twelve years (Blick 1994). In the Spitalfields section of London, a 1999 archaeological dig uncovered a medieval vaulted charnel house, used until the seventeenth century. The charnel house was beneath a chapel built between 1389 and 1391. In 1925 a memorial charnel house was built in Bukovik, Serbia (now the town of Arandjelovac) to contain the remains of several thousand soldiers, both Serbian and Austro-Hungarian, who died in nearby battles during World War I. In 1938 Italians completed a charnel house in Kobarid, Slovenia, to contain the remains of 1,014 Italian soldiers who also had been killed in World War I. Along the main staircase are niches with the remains of 1,748 unknown soldiers. Charnel houses still exist in the twenty-first century. A Korean manufacturer, for example, sells natural jade funeral urns and funeral caskets for use in charnel houses.
Hunt, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England. 1865. Reprint, New York: B. Blom, 1968.
Stevens, Mark. "War Stories." New York Magazine, 22 February 1999.
Blick, Jeffrey P. "The Quiyoughcohannock Ossuary Ritual and the Feast of the Dead." In the 6th Internet World Congress for Biomedical Sciences [web site]. Available from www.uclm.es/inabis2000/symposia/files/133/index.htm .