Remember when Christians Didn’t Fear Death?
Portugal does. The charnel houses remind us that we weren’t always this averse to death.
Sometimes, as Christians, we take this life for granted in anticipation of the next. We look forward to heaven, yet we are afraid to leave the earth. Even so, we often forget just how temporary our lives are and how easily they can come to an end. After all, the human body is a delicately fine-tuned (albeit heavily flawed) machine and, even with the best of maintenance, all machines break down eventually.
Every now and then, we need to be humbled and reminded that our time on this earth is short, perhaps even shorter than we think. Between COVID-19, countless mass shootings, police brutality, upticks in various hate crimes, and various extreme weather events, many of us will leave this planet in an untimely manner at some point in the 2020s. In the 17th and 18th centuries, several Portuguese monks set out to give us this reminder in the form of the charnel house: a chapel whose walls are adorned with human bones.
Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” recently visited three charnel houses in Portugal and it got me thinking about how Christians then and Christians now seem to have completely different approaches to death and dying. Today, we keep death behind closed doors and awkwardly shuffle our dead away. However, it wasn’t always like this. Openness about death and dying used to be the norm.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, burial at church was quite popular. This meant that it was common for church yards of the time to contain hundreds of bodies. During times of plague or other mass casualties, these bodies would need to be exhumed en masse to create space for new burials. After this, monks would decorate chapels with these bones to serve as a reminder of our physical mortality.
Charnel houses were meant to inspire repentance in those who visited them. The display of thousands of bones from monks served as a memento mori: a reminder that everyone eventually dies. Being reminded of one’s mortality on such a visceral level served as a warning to turn one’s life around before it was too late. In Evora, one of these chapels has a sign that tells travelers to stop and contemplate the shortness of life.
Today, it also reminds us that death is the ultimate equalizer. Regardless of anything else, we are all bone on the inside. In the charnel houses, it’s rather difficult to tell which bones belong in a set, let alone discern who anyone was during their time on this earth. On the walls of the charnel houses, no one dares to discern male from female, rich from poor, or Protestant from Catholic. They are on the same wall lined up as the equals they couldn’t be in this life.