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.
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.
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.
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
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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!