A chronicle of the author’s visits to a selection of Europe’s bone chapels and her reflections on fear and mortality.
“The deposition of human remains always makes a statement,” writes academic Inge (Wanting Like a God: Desire and Freedom in the Works of Thomas Traherne, 2009, etc.), who completed this meditative amalgam of memoir and travelogue shortly before her death in 2014. Compelled by a nagging desire to brave life “unfrightened,” the author initiated an eccentric grand tour of four obscure Eastern and Central European ossuaries (where disarticulated bones of the dead are collected), beginning in a small Polish town and concluding in the Swiss Alps. Inge’s four-city pilgrimage was precipitated by the discovery that the town house she shared with her husband, an Anglican clergyman in Worcester, England, was built over a medieval charnel house complete with “sloping piles” of bones witnessed by candlelight through a cellar trapdoor. A reliably immersive guide whose prose only occasionally dips into indulgent stream-of-consciousness sections, Inge marvels over the stacked “walls of the dead” at an 18th-century chapel in Czermna; skulls roped together into “festive garlands” or hand-painted with names in the Czech Republic and Austria; and the 12-foot-high (and twice as wide) towers of crania in a Switzerland ossuary. Decorating this journey are ruminative musings on the nature of “death denial,” resurrection, and the author’s father’s passing, yet the bookending sections are perhaps the most effective at conveying Inge’s affinity for the nuances of death—though she only fleetingly mentions the inoperable cancer that would claim her own life. A thoughtful writer who believed her terminal diagnosis made life more “delicious,” Inge’s bone tour illuminates the expansive difference “between the humdrum everyday and heaped mortality.”
An adventurous and macabre tribute to the eternal longevity of human bones.