Tales from the Crypt

Portugal – that’s where I was a week ago. I went to the Algarve. The evenings looked like this:

 

Nearby the villa we stayed at there was a small town called Alcantarilha, and in this town is a 16th century church – the Capela dos Ossos or the Bone Chapel, as you’ll see by its original decor inside:  

 

Over 1000 bones are stored in this chapel, which was built over a graveyard. Like many bone chapels throughout Portugal, as opposed to being a gory sight, it was actually built for the honest purpose of protecting the remains of the dead. Which is why inside, Jesus watches over the bones.

Portugal isn’t the only country to have relocated various graveyard bones. From my last post about my family tree of deceased people, to this post with its church of relocated bones…to a tree with relocated graves. Do you know who this man is?

It’s Thomas Hardy, the famous writer of such stories as Jude the ObscureFar from the Madding Crowd, and Under the Greenwood Tree. St Pancras station, London, began construction in 1863, and there was a slight problem with the development: St Pancras Old Church, said to have Norman links and to be the oldest surviving church in London, had a graveyard full of aristocrats and prominent figures such as immigrants like the refugees from the French Revolution, that encroached on the development of the station and later developments. So it was decided that the graveyard should be relocated.

Around the same time as the construction of the station, Thomas Hardy was a student of architecture. He was appointed as the overseer of the exhumation – a sensitive affair considering the nature of the job, and one which he would write about much later, having spent so much of his time managing the movement. The 7,000 bodies were to be placed in a mass grave just north of the graveyard. And the gravestones?

 

This is known as the Thomas Hardy tree, an ash tree which was planted around the same time as the reinterment of the bodies, later to grow up amongst the headstones. I haven’t actually visited it yet. Maybe I’ll go on Halloween. And to Highgate cemetery.

I’ve visited many cemeteries in my life, due to the two trips I went on visiting First World War memorials and graveyards in France and Belgium. One sticks in my mind in Belgium – the Langemark cemetery, a German cemetery.


During WWI, the Germans buried their dead just as their enemies did, in makeshift graves that became permanent. Here are a couple of original German graves at the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Belgium:

After WWI, the defeated Germans were made to exhume the bodies of their soldiers in the graveyards in this area of Belgium, and rebury them in fewer graveyards. After WWII, the Germans had to exhume the bodies again from these cemeteries and reinter them again into fewer cemeteries, for the sake of an easy upkeep in a foreign land. Langemark, at the time known as Langemarck-North was one of just three “collecting” cemeteries. It was filled with the bodies from 18 other cemeteries. They were reburied in mass graves, multiple names listed like below. 

There are over 44,000 bodies in this one cemetery.

Everyone I know who I visited this cemetery with on both tours was especially affected by the bleakness here. Aside of the many gravestones, there are three mass graves here, one of which is known as the Comrades’ grave, containing 24,917 servicemen. Worth noting is the small monument at the entrance; inside, this building lists the names of the soldiers’s bodies that were unable to be identified but known to be buried at Langemark.

3,000 of the bodies in one area of the cemetery are those of Kriegsfreiwilliger, which means war volunteer. These soldiers were young, inexperienced German men who made up 15% of the war vounteers who died at the Battle of Langemarck during October and November 1914, as part of the First Battle of Ypres. It was at the hands of highly trained French infantry and British riflemen. It is now known as Kindermord bei Ypern in German, or the Massacre of the Innocents in English.

At one end of the cemetery stands four figures, the bronze statues of a group of mourning men, created by Professor Emil Krieger from Munich. It was taken from a famous print of a group of German soldiers from the Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 mourning at a graveside in 1918. Two days later the man on the second from the right was killed.

When you first enter the cemetery, it’s what you immediately see. These four silhouetted figures. And even once you’ve worked out that they aren’t in fact real people, you can’t help but let your gaze return to them, always there in the background, watching over.

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