An ossuary, also referred to as a bone house, is a facility for the storage of human bones. Ossuaries can range from complex underground crypts to simple wooden boxes. They play a vital role in several world religions which practice exhumation of bodies after burial. Many countries have ossuaries that people can visit, some of which include architectural features made from bone including chandeliers, wall decorations, and flooring. Most ossuary buildings contain individual boxes of human bone, also called ossuaries.
While the idea of an ossuary makes some individuals squeamish, ossuaries have been a part of human life for thousands of years. Some early humans exhumed and moved their dead after a set period of time had elapsed. Some cultures carried their dead with them in portable ossuaries or slings, because they believed that this would make the spirits of the dead more accessible. The construction of solid crypt-like ossuaries has been carried on for centuries, with several fine examples scattered around Europe.
Exhumation is most common in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where bodies are exhumed several years after burial so that the bones can be transferred to an ossuary. Many customs accompany the exhumation, varying by area. A common tradition is that the moral righteousness of the individual can be determined by the condition of the body. In the Catholic Church, an ossuary is used to house the relics of saints, and many deeply religious individuals make pilgrimages to the site of ossuaries so that they can look on the remains of saints and other individuals sacred to the church. The Zoroastrian religion also incorporated the use of ossuaries for skeletonized bone, throwing the bones into a large well.
The custom of exhumation and interment in an ossuary used to be a part of Jewish tradition as well, due to limited cemetery space. Some religions, such as Islam, have never had a tradition of exhumation, and the practice is forbidden to Muslims. Many ancient cultures have artifacts of human bone, suggesting that exhumation of skeletonized bodies was commonplace.
One famous ossuary in the world is Sedlec, which incorporates over 40,000 human skeletons into the total construction. Another famous ossuary is the James Ossuary, a small box which was believed to belong to the brother of Jesus. After extensive scientific examination, the ossuary was deemed to be a forgery.