A churchyard ossuary in the small French town of Marville contains the carefully-stacked remains of four centuries of village residents.
Nestled in the region of Lorraine, the Romanesque church of St. Hilaire was built in the 12th century. The site is surrounded by a remarkable graveyard, full of elaborate gravestones and Gothic tombs. At some point, however, it became a little too full. With no room to accommodate the newly-dying, it was determined that some of the older gravesites would have to be excavated.
The ossuary was built in 1890, under the diligent guidance of the cemetery’s then-caretaker. Human remains were removed from many of the graves, classified, and stacked in meticulous columns along the wall of the ossuary building. The ordering of the skeletal jumble was determined in part by class, with the bones of the nobility receiving special attention. In addition, 29 aristocratic skulls were stored in finely-crafted wooden skull boxes and placed along an altar table at the ossuary’s center. (It hasn’t done them too many favors - wood deteriorates faster than bone.) Although many ossuaries have disappeared over time, this small structure still contains some 40,000 skulls.
The building itself is a compact brick shed with a red tile roof. Although grated, its windows and doors remain open to the wind and the curious glances of cemetery visitors too skittish to step inside. A small sign suspended from the roof salutes those who enter with a somber reflection: “We were like you. You will be like us. Pray for us.”