The Church of Bones

(3 minute read)

“The Church is made of bones,” our professor stated simply, then continued with his lecture. 

My classmates exchanged looks that ranged from skeptical to disgusted. Like, human bones? I could see the question on their faces, but no one dared to ask. 

That actually sounds weirdly cool, I thought. I’ll have to check it out before we go home.

Capuchin Crypt

I first learned about the Capuchin Crypt under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome when I was studying abroad there for a semester in college. Initially, I had a hard time imagining how a church could be made of bones. Were bones held together like bricks with mortar to make the foundation and walls? Would the final product look like a haunted house? 

My curiosity and my desire to understand led me to research the church. To my surprise, it was located along the route I took back to my host family’s house each day. When I arrived one fall afternoon, I realized that I already knew this church. It wasn’t just conveniently located on my commute home, it was the very church I stood in front of every day while I waited for the bus! 

Excited, I paid a small entrance fee and then walked down a short but steep staircase into the crypt. It was cooler down there, a little dusty, and quiet. I made my way through several small rooms that were made of regular building materials like plaster and paint, but were decorated in a most unusual way: with human bones. 

The skeletons of thousands of Capuchin friars had been exhumed, separated, and then nailed or glued to the walls and ceiling in a variety of decorative patterns. There were also several full skeletons as well as a few stacks of skulls incorporated into the design. I marveled at how something that could be seen as macabre or sinister actually appeared rather beautiful.

In the last room stood a small sign, written in several languages, that stopped me in my tracks: 

“What you are we were; what we are you will be.”

This was the truth. It wasn’t depressing or scary, it was just, very simply, true. In the midst of my exciting adventure abroad, one in which I felt like I barely slowed down even to sleep, God met me in an unusual place and gave me a moment to memento mori – to remember my death. 

What started out as an adventure inspired by curiosity and a desire to understand turned into a profound encounter with the Lord. In this moment – and in many others like it throughout my life – God used my natural desire to learn and try new things to speak to my heart and remind me of His truth, beauty, and goodness. 

For the month of November 2022, Good News for Families encourages you to “remember your death.” While death can be a difficult concept for many people to think and talk about, we know that Jesus’ sacrifice has transformed death into a doorway to eternal life. Head over to Good News for Families on the Premium Hub to learn more about the Catholic tradition of memento mori and to explore ways your family can live out this tradition in the coming weeks. 

Photo source:,_Santa_Maria_Immacolata_a_Via_Veneto,_Krypta_der_Kapuziner_1.jpg.

Written by Catherine Sullivan


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