St Leonard’s Church of Hythe in Kent, UK, was recently rocked by the seemingly senseless and sacrilegious theft of 21 human skulls.
These skulls, part of a much larger collection in the ossuary or “bone room” at the church, were noted missing on Monday 16 July. Reverend Andrew Sweeney, priest-in-charge, commented: “Each skull represents the mortal remains of a human being who deserves to rest in peace” which, to our modern ears and unfamiliarity with ossuary practices, may sound like an oxymoron. After all, “resting in peace” surely means they should never have been displayed in such a way in the first place?
But to navigate the complexities of these sacred, silent ossuaries and catacombs - which are mainly found in Europe - it’s important to understand the beliefs and burial practices of the early Christian Church.
The common concept of Judgement Day meant that coffin burial after death was the only option for anyone who wanted to enter heaven, and burial on consecrated ground was imperative. The wealthier the deceased was, the “closer to God” they could be buried, meaning that those who could afford to pay the most were literally interred in the parish churches’ walls and floors, a desire which was often taken advantage of. Famously Enon Chapel “London’s Victorian Golgotha” was notorious for its noxious smell of decomposition, persistent aura of flies, and bones protruding through walls because the corrupt clergyman - Reverend W. Howse - alleviated parishioners of their money despite there not being enough space for such entombment. It was alleged he crammed between 10-12,000 cadavers into spaces in and beneath the church, often creating more room by prematurely depositing barrows of bones in the Thames and using coffins as firewood. He was eventually caught and the chapel became a dance hall.
As space around churches became scarce over time, many skeletal remains were removed from the churchyards to make room for freshly deceased paying customers, and these evicted bones would then ironically end up with a more premium seat inside the church: the ossuary. This later led - instead - to huge garden cemeteries being built outside the cities’ walls rather than parish burial, which is why resting places such as Highgate (London) and Père Lachaise (Paris) now exist.
The European ossuary practices, however, were nuanced, with some of those being buried in the church of Halstatt, Austria - for example - knowing that their eventual fate was to be be exhumed in order for their skulls to be ceremonially bleached by the sun and moon, and then painted with one of several different symbols.
St Leonard’s, one of three charnel houses in the UK (along with St Bride’s, London and Rothwell, Northamptonshire), contains around 1,000 skulls - now minus 21 - as well as a large stack of femurs. There were previously several theories as to why the skulls were placed in the crypt but St Leonard’s itself states, “The general consensus now is that the remains are those of many generations of Hythe residents who had been buried in the churchyard, evidenced by the deposits of soil within the skulls, and were dug up originally in the 13th century.”
This is consistent with previous practices I mentioned. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that most western remains which pre-date the first legal cremation (in the UK this was 1885) would want to be in the grounds of a church and if not there, then in the church. To remove them is theft on a par with the body snatching of the 1700s and 1800s.
So why steal the skulls? The likelihood is that they will be sold. If each skull is worth up to £1,000 to someone who would like to purchase such a ‘curio’ the thief or thieves are now set to make a huge amount of money. In my HuffPost UK blog ‘Flogging a Dead Corpse’ I discuss the sale of human remains in great detail, thankful that in the UK sites such as eBay and Etsy find the practice “questionable” and “distasteful” although eBay US policy does allow it.
As a museum curator, it is an area of professional interest to me and I believe there is no need for anyone to own part of a human being. There may certainly be ways to obtain these remains legally, but honestly, does that make it right? The existence of a human remains trade has caused this theft. Even someone who generously “donated their remains to medical science” shouldn’t end up in a private collection: this goes against their wishes.
As the old epitaph states:
Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.