The Bones in the Pile – Kent

There are many firsts in life that should be celebrated and this was one of mine. Others mark occasions with champagne or presents. I celebrated visiting my first ossuary with some chips and a souvenir fridge magnet.

I tried to visit an ossuary in Portugal a few years ago, but the little church it was reputedly in was never open. I tried three times on different days, at different times, but the doors were always locked. So when I discovered that Britain’s largest and apparently best preserved ossuary was a short drive away from home in Hythe, it wasn’t long before we were taking a drive to the coast to see the piles of bones. 20170820_150034.jpg

As we walked up the path towards the ossuary entrance, I barely noticed St Leonard’s church above it, I was too excited by the handmade and wonky ‘To The Crypt‘ sign, which pointed down towards some steps. There were already a number of people inside as we handed the volunteer on the door a small entrance fee. The crypt was small and dusty, with vaulted ceilings. Considering the fact that it is the largest of its kind in the country I was surprised and gladdened by the low key displays. No fancy screens or modern lighting, just piles of bones the way they had been for years. There were some low level cabinets with particular specimens in, but nothing that detracted from the atmosphere of the crypt. Rows of lower jaw bones were laid out with a hand painted sign asking visitors not to touch. There was even a visitors book (what people used before TripAdvisor kids) where people had left lovely comments about their visit.

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There had been many theories about the residents of the crypt, but the one most favour now is that the 2,000 or so people are merely former residents of Hythe. Even the two skulls that past historians thought were of dwarves turned out to be from children. While the history of the place was interesting, I just enjoyed being there and being confronted with a wall of skulls. It was also interesting to see other people’s reactions to the place, mostly wonder and awe. I spotted a small collection of souvenirs, all brilliantly old school and reasonably priced. I nearly came away with a branded purse to wear round your neck, but settled for a fridge magnet. After the crypt we took a walk around the cemetery above ground, in lovely bright sunshine. We popped into St Leonard’s Church as well but after the wall of skulls there wasn’t much to impress. Then we went for a walk along the seafront and got some chips, making this a day full of my favourite things.

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The Royalty in the Relic – Vienna

I’ve been to Vienna twice now, not specifically to see macabre things but they inevitably become part of my holidays.

My first trip to the Austrian capital was to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. It was surprisingly awesome, unsurprisingly camp and a lot of fun. I hadn’t even considered being able to do anything remotely spooky, as the people I was travelling with weren’t really into that. However on a slightly rainy day during our brief stay, when everyone else was doing a walking tour or visiting the zoo, one of my party (my brother) informed me that Vienna was home to Europe’s largest cemetery. Luckily for me he likes history and doing anything where the numbers of people around will be minimal. We caught the tram out to the cemetery as, like the majority of large burial places, it was on the outskirts. We were greeted by impressive white stone gates and a huge open space divided into different nominations and religions. Opposite the gates there was a stonemason specialising in headstones, which was handy.

We walked around as much of the cemetery as we could (it was too big for us to cover the whole site in the short time we had), saw Beethoven’s resting place and spotted some scene-appropriate crows atop the larger memorials. Before we left we visited the small funeral museum, where I saw a genuine coffin bell for the first time (I’ve been trying to buy one ever since) as well as a Lego funeral cortege (which I’ve also been looking for). As the Lego wasn’t for sale, I settled for a wooden coffin keyring with the name of the museum on and a souvenir postcard and map. The rest of my first stay in Vienna revolved around waving flags at Eurovision and drinking every time Azerbaijan scored a point.

My second visit didn’t involve a multi-national, multi-glitter balled singing competition so my time was free to spend hunting out relics and dead royalty. Luckily Vienna has a lot of these.

Even without doing lots of research, the average relic hunter can wander into a Catholic church in mainland Europe and find a piece of a saint. Sometimes the saint’s hand, heart or scalp are locked in gilded boxes by the altar but many are in the small chapels at the sides of the main aisle. They are often easy to miss, or to dismiss as something else entirely as they can be small fragments of bone, scraps of fabric or vials of blood. Even complete saints are often walked passed unnoticed by those not looking out for them. The full saint, complete with skin in places, that I discovered in St Peter’s Church (Peterskirsche) was one such relic.

The church has impressive, gilt statues and beautiful painted domes – most visitors to the church are looking up at the images of saints above them, rather than down by their feet where the actual saint lies in repose. St Benedictus was given to the church by the Pope to Cardinal Sigismund Count Kollonitsch and he lies on his side, with one hand to his face, in a fine white suit with golden lace. His dress has cut-outs showing his rib cage and boney feet. Despite his elegant clothing (and the fact he is a full skeleton wearing a crown) most people walked right passed his unlit display case.

It is difficult to find information about St Benedictus. I managed to find out who he wasn’t, rather than who he was. He is not the famous St Benedict who founded the Benedictine Monks (he’s interred in a monastery in Italy). He is supposedly a Christian martyr but regardless of his heritage he is the most impressive single relic I’ve ever seen.

The photo below is from the church’s website. My photo was very dark and while I don’t follow any religion I respect other religions enough not to use a flash in a church full of people. There was another saint on the opposite side of the church (St Donatus) but being two weeks before Christmas and a weekend, the church was full of worshipers and tourists, so I couldn’t get close to St Benedict’s relic-mate and the church website doesn’t picture him at all.

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The macabre highlight of my second visit to Vienna was undoubtedly the Hasburg Tomb however. Large and unusually modern-looking (well, modern by crypt standards) the Kapuzinergruft was marble floored, darkly lit and severe in its design. The more modern sarcophagi were simple, almost Soviet in style, with seemingly little sentiment given to the person who lay inside.

My shoes squeaked as I walked from room to room and the sign advising me that the ‘sarcophaguses’ were alarmed made me feel like reaching over the iron railing to sneak a touch of the cold metal coffins. I didn’t of course. One of the final rooms held a gigantic double sarcophagus with skulls, lions and battle armour surrounding it and statues of the occupants lying on top as if waking from a nap. I had to get a photo of myself next to it to give an idea of scale (see above). This was the resting place of Franz Stephan and Maria Theresia, Emperor and Empress of Austria. Maria had 16 children – a feat in itself, but she was also crowned thanks to her father organising a ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ ensuring his daughters could be heirs to the throne. Even though he had decreed the sanction, she still had a fight on her hands to inherit, but inherit she did.

Throughout the crypt there were also tiny sarcophagi for children, some for babies who hadn’t lived a year, but even these were unrelenting in their utilitarian design.

 

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Before entering the main crypt there was a display case showing various altar pieces, candle holders and gilt frames. The largest frame, standing about three feet high, had pieces of bone wrapped in gold-edged fabric and the top of a skull on show as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The only information about the display was written in Austrian so I have no idea who the pieces of skeleton belong to or where the piece came from.

 

 

After wandering around the many rooms in the crypt, we emerged above ground and I insisted on going into the church above it (as I do with most churches in the hope of finding a new relic). The Capuchin Church was much like many others I had visited – wooden pews, impressive altar, a few tourists looking about and a few people praying – and a glass screen with doors in to allow visitors to look into the main church without entering fully (perhaps when there were ceremonies taking place). There was a lady stood, eyes closed, holding shopping bags with her arms by her sides, in this in between section. She seemed to be in a trance and barely moving, not facing the altar but towards the side of the church. We were careful not to disturb her as we walked around to and through the glass door.

We walked down the main aisle and into one of the side chapels and, as I had come to expect from most decent-sized catholic churches, I found a skull on display. It was difficult to get a picture through the glass to begin with and my British politeness also means I have to wait until no one is looking before I take a picture. After the other tourists had moved to a different part of the church I began to focus my camera and got a couple of shots before a monk in brown robes emerged from a small wooden door nearby. He didn’t seem to notice me, but my camera phone was hastily put away regardless.

Capuchin Church relic

Any information available about the relics was either too small to read or in Austrian (or both) so I was none the wiser about which saintly skull was behind the glass. As we left, the lady was still in her trance, in the same position. The monk busied himself around her and seemed not to take much notice of her either. It struck me as strange that someone would choose to feel moved at that spot, by the entrance and exit, rather than take a seat in a pew or side chapel. Then it occurred to me that she probably didn’t choose the spot at all. I wonder how long she stayed there.

During my time in Vienna I saw a lot of beautiful corpses and deathly history, but there were still crypts I discovered too late in my trip to visit and I still haven’t made it inside the main cathedral of St Stephen. I think my next visit will be in the summer though, as Vienna has rained on me unapologetically each time I’ve been.

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