‘Flesh of her flesh they were…’ Memory on display in 20th century ossuaries

pushed into the footnote of European religious history, charnels were once part of a dialogue with death that has now fallen silent

This wonderful quote from Paul Koudounaris, the art historian who brought many charnel houses and ossuaries back into the spot light through his devoted volumes (see here and here), perfectly captures the biography of many of such collective tombs. Placed at the cross-road of memorial spaces, funerary practices and display strategies, medieval or modern ossuaries bring with them the memory of past deathviews, which are almost lost to us. However, the case of 20th century ossuaries of soldiers and ‘new martyrs’ who died violent deaths are good examples that such practices not only have not been lost, but they find new expressions in response to new historical contexts.

Even though religious charnel houses might be the most famous ones, Europe is marked by another important category which is often overlooked: ossuaries of the WWI fallen soldiers. From the west front to the east, the interwar years witnessed the construction of monumental complexes designed to host the bodies of thousand or hundreds of thousands soldiers, whose names have been sometimes lost forever. Such collective graves not only provided a solution to the large number of casualties, out of whom many remained unidentified, but they also became places of remembrance and commemoration of those lost lives to the violence of the Great War. On the west front one can think of the impressive Douaumont ossuary near Verdun, a memorial where lie the skeletal remains of more than 130,000 unidentified French and German combatants.

Source: theatlantic.com (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

A view inside the mass graves; Source: pierreswesternfront.punt.nl

On the eastern front, the case of Romanian post-wars ossuaries is typical in the Balkan context:from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia, impressive and visible monuments were errected to mark the sacrifice of the fallen and prevent forgetting. 335,000 Romanian soldiers were dead or missing at the end of WWI, 33% from the number of mobilised troups (almost a double or even triple percentage when compared with the British, Russian or French troupes). However, in a country were funerary practices traditionally take place at a family level, circumscribed to Orthodox customs, such collective burials brought something new. It was the State’s role to initiate and supervise the design of such ossuaries, to locate places and to unearth and gather the remains- in 1919 was founded the Society for the Cemeteries of the Heroes (Mormintele eroilor cazuti in razboi), and in the following years several mausoleums were built at key battlefields: at Focşani, Giurgiu, Mărăşti, Mărăşeşti and Topliţa. A particular case is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest:

In 1923, soldiers’ remains were exhumed at several locations where fierce fighting took place to be placed in a crypt in Carol Park at the center of Bucharest. Remains were gathered from the four corners of Romania, symbolizing the four corners of the world. A war orphan, who was a pupil at the Military school, chose a coffin to house the remains. The process of the selection of the soldier to be buried clearly reflected French influence. In France, the “Unknown Soldier” was randomly selected from eight caskets exhumed from the most important French battle sites of the Great War. A veteran, specially chosen for the occasion, was given the task of choosing the coffin that was ultimately transported back to Paris (Danilo Šarenac, 2014)

Mateiaș Heroes Mausoleum,Valea Mare-Pravăț (Romania), for soldiers killed during WWI, 1916-1919 ‪ (Photo by andr2eea,amfostacolo.ro)

Giurgiu – Mausoleul Eroilor, unidentified soldiers remains. Source: http://amfostacolo.ro

Besides the fact that such monuments played the role of a collective tomb, they also had embedded in them a display dimension: commingled anatomical parts stacked one on top of another and placed behind glass cases. Such remains became the material signifiers of the horrors and legacy of war, visually marking the ravages of violence through the mixing of thousands of bodies: lost lives, lost identities. Their collective effort in life became symbolised through a collective post-mortem destiny (see also N.Saunders work on bodies in conflict).

Given that the manipulation of human remains to support such commemorative practices was mainly supported through a state initiative and effort, in time they fell forgotten once more- except for occasional commemorative events. This is especially visible in the case of smaller/local crypts and ossuaries, as the ones in Rusi and Dobrovat Moldoveni (in Moldova region). In the latter village, in the local cemetery is the funerary monument of 62 heroes from WWI and 74 from WWII. In the small crypt built in 1953 bones line the 2 walls, and an improvised altar is placed in between. A villager remembers how there were  ‘1000 but 1’ soldiers who tied of typhoid fever during the war, who lie in the cemetery and whose names are remembered only by 2 plaques:

Now they lie down there, as you stack wood for winter…Sometimes there are visitors coming to see our heroes, how they lie with their feet gathered on one side, heads on the other and hands at a side” (Nelu Paunescu)

Dobrovat Moldoveni ossuary. Source: http://nelupaunescu.blogspot.ro

This ‘domestic’ language, using familiar images- bones stacked like “wood for winter” or beetroot, is quite endearing and gives one a glimpse into how the locals actually interacted with these dead (who sometimes are not even ‘their dead’, dead of various nationalities and from different time periods).

What should also be noted is that even though the proeminence of such monuments might have changed throughout the last decades, the bones still retain an active profile: new ossuaries have been created. Either heroes cemetery plots were reused- see an MP claiming that soldier’s remains have been unearthed from one of Bucharest’s military cemeteries and placed in an ossuary where broken plaques leave the remains open to the eye- or the intention of creating new commemorative landmarks leave the bones in an administrative limbo, as is the case of Fagaras municipium. Here the war veterans intended to errect a mausoleum in the memory of the 900 military fallen in Ţara Făgăraşului during the two WW. The initial plan was to place the ossuary in the city centers roundabout (!), a crypt which was built in 2007 and even some of the remains were moved in. However, because the National Office of the Cult of Heroes did not approve, they had to move the remains back in the cemetery, only to find that the former graves have been occupied (so now the bones wait to receive new plots in a new cemetery). Therefore, individual or small groups initiatives still see these bones as vehicles of memory, who can be mobilised in order to honour them as they deserve.

The term  ‘heroes’ has been used also in a religiously laden context, to designate the victims of violence during the communist regime (heroes/martyrs) and it’s interesting to see that similar practices arise at the cross-road of religious veneration and heroes’ ossuaries- the post 1989 excavations in the cemetery of the former communist prison of Aiud led to unearthing of a number of bones who are atributed to some of Romania’s interwar elite, religious and laic alike. In the commemorative complex recently built (1999), in the “Înalţarea sfintei cruci” monastery, they have stacked these bones on racks in an improvised “ossuary” and they are revered as martyr bones- though no official beatification by the Church took place.

Ossuary in “Înalţarea sfintei cruci” monastery. Source: http://www.magazincritic.ro

Thus, even though the common view in contemporary society is that the dialogue with the dead seems to have fallen silent, with death and the dead being pushed out from the public sphere, the history of such ossuaries sheds an interesting different light.

References and further reading:

Annette Becker 1993. From Death to Memory: The National Ossuaries in France after the Great War. History and Memory 5 (2 ): 32-49.

Maria Bucur 2010. Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania. Indiana University Press.

Nicolae Ciobanu 2008. Pierderile umane ale României în timpul Războiului de Intregire. In EROI ŞI MORMINTE , volumul II. Alfa MDN – Buzău.

Paul Cornish, Nicholas J Saunders (Editors) 2013. Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality, and Transformation. Routledge.

Nelu Paunescu 2012. Gropi comune şi eroi fără nume. http://nelupaunescu.blogspot.ro/2012/06/gropi-comune-si-eroi-fara-nume.html (and: http://www.ziare.com/ziare-iasi/cultura/secretele-craniilor-de-la-dobrovat-3061505)

Danilo Šarenac 2014. Commemoration, Cult of the Fallen (South East Europe), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10070.

Nikolai Vukov 2010. “Collective Interments: Ossuaries and Brotherly Mounds in Bulgaria, 1944-1989.” Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Historica Special 2: 147-165.

*** Eroi uitaţi în stradă. Osemintele unor militari, mutate într-un sens giratoriu: http://stiri.tvr.ro/eroi-uitati-in-strada–osemintele-unor-militari–mutate-intr-un-sens-giratoriu_60663.html

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