The Dry Bones of Brittany

Containing the bones of the dead within an ossuary – a receptacle which could range from a simple stone casket to an entire elaborate chapel – was an ancient practice once quite widespread in the Near East and Europe; the role and nature of an ossuary being heavily influenced by a combination of social factors and religious beliefs. In Europe, they were a simple solution for handling the problem faced by having limited burial space for the dead and served as a useful marketing tool for the teachings of the Church.

In the early Middle Ages, burial grounds were established against and around parish churches but inevitably, given the relatively short life expectancy of the time, these plots, most of which contained large common graves, were soon filled. Sometime around the 14th century, it became common practice for local churches to clear their burial grounds to create much needed space for new burials.

Typically in the western European tradition, bodies in these places would initially be interred for several years to allow the body sufficient time to decompose. The skeletal remains would then be exhumed, the bones cleaned, dried and sorted according to type; skulls, small bones and long bones, before being  placed in an ossuary where they were stored together in stacked groups. These could be sited in a crypt or in the loft inside a church but spaces here too were limited and usually reserved for the clergy or privileged nobles, so, other solutions were needed.

Inside the ossuary

Some parish churches chose to create special niches set within or against their churchyard walls which, over time, often developed into quite elaborate affairs. Some created annexes contiguous to the south wall of the church whilst others constructed discrete purpose-built buildings close to the church or graveyard with window openings faced to the east.

Modest ossuary near Rosporden
Attached ossuary at Gouarec

Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known as garnals in Breton) began to appear in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred years or so. It has been estimated that over half of the surviving monumental ossuaries were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of steady monument construction in the first part of the 17th century, a second notable phase of building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After about 1700, there was little new monumental construction here; of the ossuaries erected in the 18th century, some were second or even third ossuaries for the same churchyard.

This boom in construction in the 16th and 17th centuries coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in canvas, linen and flax. This increased wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended and embellished. It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that arguably the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a monumental parish enclosure.

Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry, Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. The ossuaries at Guimiliau and Kermoroc’h are particularly noteworthy as both contain external preaching pulpits.

It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those seen elsewhere in Europe.  While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the 17th century but not in Brittany.

Monumental ossuary at Sizun
Monumental ossuary at La Roche Maurice

However, this was not the case in Brittany where 18th century moves by Church and State to shift burials from churchyards to edge-of-town cemeteries were quite strongly resisted; the use of ossuaries remained widespread here long after such practices had died out elsewhere, much to the consternation of some visitors.

‘A very strange practice reigns in Brittany. The kinfolk of the deceased unearth the dead after several years, when they believe that the soil will have absorbed all of the decomposed flesh. The recovered bones are then placed in a small building constructed near to the church, the ossuary. Sometimes one takes the head of the dead, puts it in a box and places it in the church inscribed “Here lies the skull of N.” It is impossible to imagine nothing more repulsive …. Often, great zeal does not allow time for the complete de-fleshing of the corpse and shreds of putrefying flesh attract dogs which no-one cares to chase away.’ Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France (1836), Prosper Mérimée

inside an ossuary in brittany
.

The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, noting a very crowded village cemetery near Quiberon, observed the ossuary ‘contains skeletons that have been exhumed in order to make room for other corpses. Who has said: “Life is a hostelry and the grave is our home?” But these corpses do not remain in their graves, for they are only tenants and are ejected at the expiration of the lease.’ He continued:

‘Around this ossuary, where this cluster of bones resemble a jumble of faggots, is arranged, man-high, a series of small black boxes, six inches square, covered with a roof surmounted by a cross and pierced in front in the shape of a heart to reveal the skull inside. Above the heart are painted letters: “This is the head of –, died such year and such day.” These heads did not belong only to persons of a certain rank and he would pass for a bad son if, after seven years, he did not give his parents’ skulls the luxury of one of these little chests. The rest of the body is sent to the ossuary and 25 years later the head is thrown in. Some years ago they wanted to abolish this custom. A riot ensued and it remained.’ Par Les Champs et Par Les Greves (1886), G Flaubert & M Du Camp

It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until the First World War. The procedure began, at least five years after burial, with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song: ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’  

skull boxes
Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), decorated with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.

Aside from providing a long-term storage solution for the remains of the dead, the ossuaries of Brittany were designed to provide the people with a visible display of the dead. Ossuaries attached to the wall of a church were usually colonnaded or arcaded and the windows of the grand chapel ossuaries left unglazed for the same purpose – the illumination and exhibition of human remains. The sight of such earthly remnants was meant to serve as a vivid reminder of the inevitably of death the leveller and to encourage the faithful to reflect on the transience of human life and the consequent need to commit to a permanent Christian existence to secure salvation through the Church.

Ankou Brittany
This Ankou once decorated the ossuary font at La Martyre but now stands in the south porch

The iconography associated with Breton ossuaries shared the same themes and designs as other parts of Catholic Europe such as portrayals of death, judgement, repentance and salvation but there were quite distinctive Breton elements too, such as the depiction of the Ankou – the Breton personification of death who guides the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. A figure also sometimes represented on and inside many churches in western Brittany.

Ankou Brittany
Ankou set above the ossuary font at La Roche Maurice

The ossuaries of Brittany are a key part of the region’s unique religious heritage; they are distinct, in part, due to their abundance and the sheer longevity of their functional use by the people. Hundreds of these buildings, of all sizes, survive to this day and can be visited freely.

Most ossuaries were cleared of their bones during the last century but you can still encounter ones that have clung tightly to their precious charge, for instance at Lanrivain, Trégornan, Gouarec and the half a dozen skulls in the ossuary at Plouzélambre. Similarly, most skull boxes have been removed from the churches and ossuaries or are now hidden away in vaults but you may still chance to happen upon some on display, such as those in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint-Fiacre, Kermaria-an-Iskut and La Méaugon.

monumental ossuary in brittany
Monumental ossuary at Pleyben

The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733, it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s built heritage. However, take care not to visit during the night of Christmas Eve as that is when the bones in the ossuaries are said to talk to one another and list those who will die in the year ahead!

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

126 thoughts on “The Dry Bones of Brittany

      1. It’s certainly worth considering! First, we’d need to shed some of the taboos and attitudes towards dying and death that we seem to have steadily surrounded ourselves with over the last 250 years or so. It must be do-able though – we did it before after all!

        Liked by 3 people

  1. I think when people understand the environmental harm that comes with typical burials and cremation, they’ll become more open to alternatives, including ossuaries. It might still take a generation or two (or three), though 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I could not help but be reminded of the verse from Scripture: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4: 16).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad that you found it of interest, thank you! Yes, they used to be quite plentiful over here and while they were mostly emptied in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Brittany they were still routinely used into the 20thC.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never understood this cult of bones. Calcium, man! But it seems to be an ancestral fear. A fear of death.
    Interesting! And around here. Stacks with bones of all shapes and sizes !!! 😉
    I have a very good visual memory and I swear I’ve seen this building from Pleyben before. Is it in the Parc d’Armorique? I once passed by Brest to Nantes, where a cousin’s husband was a doctor. Now they have moved to Paris.
    🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You do have a good memory! It is quite conceivable that you would have driven through Pleyben if travelling between Brest and Nantes. Depending on how long ago it was of course as the town is now by-passed by the main National route across Brittany! 🙂

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  4. I had no idea of such a tradition. It makes sense as a practical solution to dealing with the demand for limited resting space. Did families have to pay to secure the skulls of their departed loved ones in the ossuary?

    On reading that the ossuary at Pleyben was later used to house a school, I immediately had visions of the nine-year-old boy in the movie, “The Sixth Sense,” who claimed to see dead people. Definitely not my kind of place to visit during any time of the year, much less the night of Christmas Eve!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, good question! I suspect not but there would have been a charge made for the disinterment and blessing of the bones before they were readied and taken to the ossuary.

      Haha, yes, agreed. It would certainly not be a good location for those with an active imagination, would it?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks! I am pleased that you enjoyed it! 🙂 Hmm, I am not aware of any in caves here as that would have defeated much of the point of keeping the dead on display and in the heart of the community. There are the famous catacombs in Paris that were used to house the bones from the old cemeteries when the city expanded in the 18thC although I am not sure when they were tidied as initially the bones were just dumped into the old mines!

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  5. Fascinating — and strange because I was thinking of these yesterday. I wandered into one in Switzerland, in Appenzell. It was only skulls, each painted with black paint by some relative in a way that probably meant something to the person who did the painting.

    I was thinking about it relative to a blog I read yesterday by a woman who’d found a bunch of old photos at a thrift store and tried to figure out what they might have meant to the person. This led me to resolve that sooner rather than later I will purge family photos — that led me to think about how long we’re likely to be remembered by anyone after we die and what a scourge to the planet our physical self is unless we can figure out a way to make it useful post-mortem. That led to thinking of ossuaries. I’m not usually so morbid (or realistic?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, that is interesting as there are also painted skulls in Hallstatt – wonder if there is a connection somehow?
      Ha, I have had similar thoughts especially when browsing old photos. We always think we have enough time (assuming we have the inclination) to ask who the people in the photos are. We usually don’t and suddenly the face is just a nameless face rather than one’s great great uncle or whoever! I have now chosen to identify folks in old photos by writing on the back! Hopefully, they will be remembered a little longer. 😉

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    1. Many thanks!! The styles of building vary quite a lot over what is a relatively modest area. Most are attached to the sides of churches but many are stand-alone structures with window openings and fonts and carvings. Some even have statues but it is hard to tell whether they genuinely survived the revolution of were reincorporated afterwards. The monumental ones are stunning to see and must have taken years to build. Certainly, they were “statement pieces”! 😉

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    1. Thank you! I am pleased that you enjoyed it. Yes, some of the stand-alone ossuaries are as big as chapels. They were also once quite richly decorated inside but little traces of such are now left. They stacked the bones high; so certainly enough room for a few centuries of the commune’s inhabitants! Two ossuaries near me still have hundreds of bones in them as well as the odd plastic bag 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahhh plastic! The bane of man’s ingenuity. 🙂 Good to know that there’s still a sizable inventory in case I’m ever in need of a souvenir tibia.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, sadly, plastic bags drifting on the wind are one of our less useful signs of life! Haha, yes, plenty there for you although many are now green with mold but if you are that desperate for a bone then that should not be an issue hehe! 😉 Stay well!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. 👌👌👌✒ 🌹🌹🌹 A beautiful article on an interesting topic. In Europe, we generally enjoyed the subject of death. In some parts of Nepal, they have (had) a very pragmatic approach to burial. There is a saying: You are dust and you will turn to dust. From the rise of cremation, humanity has enriched itself with the saying: Ashes to ashes ..🌞🌼💖

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A marketing tool for the teachings of the Church — fabolous!
    Weren’t they worried about mixing all those bones? Wouldn’t the souls get all mixed up? Or are people in heaven by then? Since it was spread widely, I guess the Church was cool with that?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yes, a daily reminder of the importance of salvation! 😉
      That is something that I had not considered! Here, the bodies were usually disinterred after five years but then they also had quite unusual beliefs about the fate of the soul! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Talking about the fate of the soul … The Sedlec-Ossarium forbade selfies in the church. I suppose wether you are religious or not, that doesn’t really seem like the thing to do in Bone Church … You always inspire me to google too much 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Like you, I am not too surprised. Although the bones were arranged for display, it can seem disrespectful to click away like you are photographing a vista! In Germany, there are two famous ossuaries but the one in Cologne is interesting due to its link to the Breton princess Ursula, who, according to legend was killed by the Huns along with 11,000 female companions or holy virgins in the 4thC.

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      3. You must be a walking encyclopedia! I haven’t been to any but the Cologne area is definately on my list for a short trip … some time … probably not too soon …

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I want to visit on Christmas Eve, just out of curiosity. 😉 As always, a fascinating read. When they “cleared” the ossuaries in the last 100 years what exactly did they do with the bones? I’m glad there are still surviving ones. What legacies they must hold! Those bones were once living, breathing people just like us with their own stories, talents, weaknesses and ambitions. Very uncanny to think of it! Brittany sure had some “amazing” traditions 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Haha, if you do, be careful of flying bones!! 😉
      I believe that the bones were transferred to mass graves in the cemetery. Like you, I find it remarkable that some parishes resolutely refused to empty their ossuaries, preferring to keep their dead close.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Catholics consider the burial place of the skull as a person´’s last resting place. While in recent times the church accepted reluctantly cremation, they still insist that the ashes shouldn´t be dispersed but kept together since they believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of times during the last judgement. The church of England holds similar believes.

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  10. I have heard of ossuaries, but I’ve never visited one. I actually like the idea. The dead person’s bones are at rest among other people’s bones, so it doesn’t seem as isolated and bleak as a dark grave six feet under ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I visited an ossuary in Brno in the Czech Republic a few years ago and found it both fascinating and incredibly erie. It was interesting to see all the different bones and how they arranged them in different formations.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Well, the information on the exhumation of bodies are totally new to my understanding although, we Hindus have a ritual done by taking the remained ashes. And there is an analogy which talks about the creation of rudimentary body consisting of subtle elements. Just as a caterpillar takes hold of another object before it leaves, it’s hold of an object, similarly the soul has the vision of the body to come and before it leaves the present body. It is interesting to read the Christian ossuary and as the saying goes negative attracts the people now makes me curious to test it on the Christmas Eve and wonder who is on the death list.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Very cool post!! 😊

    Very interesting 🤔

    That is not done here – maybe once upon a time? Not sure???

    Here a burial is final resting place to Rest In Peace ✌️ – to bother a grave is not really done unless needs to be.

    If you buy a plot of land in a cemetery – it’s yours forever ♾ “your final resting place”

    You can be buried in ground or buy a niche in a wall for burial. The casket slides right in and it’s sealed 💋

    With cremation you can also buy a niche or plot… or family can take home or scatter depending on last wishes

    France has incredible practices though … makes you have intrigue… is like the empire of death ❤️🖤❤️

    Soooooo incredible and fascinating 🙌

    When I was growing up as a child… I was just drawn to and fascinated by Egypt – always ❤️ couldn’t learn enough!!

    With Egyptians they took care of dead and buried favorite things – and made sure the afterlife would be good for them. I always loved that about their death practices ❤️ they gave a deep love and care to their dead ❤️ (well if they were rich and noble lol)

    Catholics are very umm?? Solemn with death?? Very serious and very formal… very sad. We supposably don’t believe in cremation, but Catholics do it all the time so it’s only if the rule works for them 😉 as with everything Catholic

    And the Vatican says cremation is ok – but only if kept on sacred ground of church or cemetery 🙄 … no one listens – they are sometimes scattered or taken home. Again whatever rule there is, they bend so fits what they want 🙄 whatever

    I want burial 🪦… I want my own final resting place and I want my whole body NOT to be burned!!! If you dig me up – and disturb my final rest…I will haunt forever ♾✌️ I will not be happy lol – no one wants that wrath lol 😘✌️

    If very least – I want to Rest In Peace … since there is no peace in life, do not disturb my final rest.

    Catholics aren’t supposed to have tattoos either but many do!! My grandfather had tattoos and one day as a child I said “oohhh I will have little shamrock ☘️ “

    They got mad and said “no no tattoos for you – is bad/is sin” … I didn’t totally understand because as he telling me that – HE HAD TATTOOs … but I just never did… plus I do not like needles so that was an easy sell lol ✌️… but was also a case of : do as I say, but not as I do 🤨

    I still do NOT have tattoos… but after cancer the drs wanted to give me tattoos – I say no. Not really because of being Catholic / cause I could care less what they tell me about anything…

    For me was more about loving what am AS IS… not listening to any organized religion… I don’t need any tattoo to make me more beautiful than how was already given ❤️ I am fine without – I do not need that

    I wonder what Vatican would say about implants due to cancer lol … it isn’t that I care what they think or believe … is more what I am ok with for my own self – Catholics are judgy

    But I have always wanted to see the catacombs ❤️❤️❤️ is like a bridge between life and death ❤️🖤❤️

    France has a bridge to after life 🙌❤️

    I love and find fascinating – but would not want for myself. I would be bothered by that and I think would stress me out about death lol ??? Then I would not want death.

    But I suppose death… can be a matter of perspective and how you see view or want your ending.

    Maybe also sprinkled in with what you were raised believing?

    Native Americans before we took their land, would just leave the group by themselves to go die.

    Native Americans have their own sacred lands used for burials and such. You are definitely NOT to disturb or you will have great curses 😮 – yeah I’m not gonna find out lol

    But your ossuaries and catacombs are fascinating and incredible ❤️ and the sheer age of some is nothing short of awe 🙌❤️

    I would love to see that – well everything actually lol ✌️

    What would happen to someone who was considered a witch? Or different or whatever ?

    I ask because I know what happened in Salem Massachusetts and also how Catholics handled people who step away or anyone different

    So how would France have treated ? Or was everyone same?

    Very very cool post ❤️ right up my alley… I like your dry bones lol ✌️😘

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks!! I am very pleased that you liked this one!
      Thankfully, Brittany escaped the worst excesses of the werewolf and witchcraft mania that swept other parts of France in the 16/17th centuries! Here, the witch held a rather ambivalent position in the community of staunch Catholics!
      Had major keyboard problems and access issues, so, not been online lately! Will check your recovery later this afternoon! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, the puritans in New England 1600’s brought over the fear of witch craft … Salem Massachusetts is known for that history … Connecticut has same history, and probably most of New England ..but it is embarrassing to see how they treated people different than them. Not to mention how the courts operated!! Was awful!

        Is a black mark on American history but we have many of those. ✌️

        Awww that’s ok I am in and out myself… between family and getting ready for my return 😮💔 my last day here – tmrw I fly home 💔

        I was hoping you did not get sick or something 😮🙌🙏 stay safe ✌️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s certainly interesting to see how people thought about things like that back in those times.

        Oh yes – I had a wonderful day… I got to watch nephew play a baseball tournament 🏟 ⚾️ ❤️❤️❤️ (I also love baseball!) and then went shopping and spent time with sister in law who is amazing … and then tonight just sat at table with my brother and we talked about family stuff and mom and then reminisced ❤️ was amazing day

        Tmrw I will cry to leave… is just what happens – I always cry to leave because I don’t know if or when I can see again – you never know what can happen … so I cry to leave always 😭💔 I will miss them ❤️

        Was incredible to see and be with my mom when we were able to ❤️

        I’m glad I came out and Covid just made me stuck at home with my family ❤️ but time I would not have had ❤️

        Covid sucks but for me keeps giving me bonuses – like extra time with my family and also that one time it let me have the highways to myself lol ❤️✌️

        But anyway… tmrw I cry to leave … I’ll be fine once they leave me and I have to get on plane ✈️… but I cry to let go 💔 every time always lol

        It’s a thing ✌️ am sensitive and wish they were not so far away… I hate that they so far that I have to take plane.

        Enjoyed every moment but still went by too fast!!

        Will be good to get home and have own bed and see kids ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  14. I love it when you read a long forgotten word – ossuary! It would be like biting into a walnut whip… It is a fascinating practice and seems eminently sensible to me. I would be quite happy to be left out for the black vultures to feast on my decaying flesh but I suspect the neighbors and HOA would disapprove. Interesting that they chose to include Ankou – like crossing your fingers and touching wood at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A fascinating and text Colin, though I found the idea of ossuary a bit morbid at first it does make sense. I wonder if we will one day find it ordinary. We are already bury the dead in stacks , there’s only so much room. Thx you Colin. I missed a couple of your post , don’t know why. So please to find these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Holly! 🙂 I am happy that you liked it! Yes, it is kinda difficult, given our current attitude to death and the departed, to think that the bones of our loved ones or their skull boxes gave us comfort and a feeling of community continuity!

      Liked by 1 person

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