HIDDEN DEATH AND THE CAPELA DOS OSSOS by Sam Elmore
I was raised in a culture that hides from death. Nobody around me growing up had a good language for talking about it. We keep the elderly and dying in homes and hospitals out of sight, which can keep death out of mind. When I first heard about the Capela Dos Ossos, I was surprised at its existence. The Capela Dos Ossos, or in English the Chapel of Bones, is a small chapel in Évora, Portugal. It was built by a Franciscan friar in the 16th century and the interior is decorated almost entirely with human bones. At the time, there were upwards of 40 cemeteries in the area, and many were going to be destroyed to make all this land available. The monks at The Church of St. Francis wanted to preserve the bones in these cemeteries rather than let them be destroyed. This was during the Counter-Reformation, and the monks were also increasingly concerned about declining morals in their culture. Instead of building catacombs to keep the corpses out of sight, they turned about five thousand exhumed skeletons into potent visual reminders. The skulls and bones adorn the walls along with poems and paintings of death motifs. The most striking of the decorations are two desiccated corpses, an adult and child, which for centuries hung from the ceiling by ropes (now they’re in glass display cases). Over the entrance is carved an inscription that translates to, “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.”
It can be haunting to imagine that all these bones used to belong to real people, but it also reminds me of the difference between a person’s body and the actual person. I was recently at an open casket funeral and it was difficult to recognize the person I saw in the coffin, an observation I’ve heard others share. It is as if the person has left the corpse and an empty vessel remains. Maybe that’s why they call them remains. When we go to bury a body, it gives me a strange feeling that while we’re burying this friend or relative, the thing going into the ground isn’t really them. That is the same feeling I get when looking at the Capela Dos Ossos. It is filled with dead people, but somehow it is completely empty. It is inhabited only by stillness.
Death is not pleasant to think about. It is very challenging but it is a challenge that we all must face, for ourselves and those around us. For something so universally present, here in the U.S. we go through great lengths to avoid it. We tend to view our inevitable aging and dying as shameful or weak. We buy and sell products to remove our wrinkles, dye our graying hair, and remove any marks of aging as if they aren’t supposed to be there. As if aging and death is a mistake. It strikes me as very odd that one of the only things we all share in common is treated as something that is wrong with us. We avoid talking about death and it can seem disrespectful to do so. When death comes up in conversation, no one quite knows what to say or how to talk about it. While the Capela Dos Ossos may be an extreme example, I wish that today we had more room for reminders like it. I don’t believe something so intrinsic to life as death should be treated with such shame and distance. My hope is that we can open up more dialogue about death and remove any stigma from of it. Why not? We’ll all be dead soon anyways.
Sam Elmore is a musician, writer, and comedian. He currently writes and performs original music with his band, based in Washington, DC.