The Ossuary of St. James’ Church
The cemetery by St. James´ Church in the present Jakubské square was established as early as the 13th century. Like other city cemeteries, it was surrounded by a wall that prevented its later extension. The capacity soon became insufficient for the growing town, and that is why an exchange burial system was adopted: after a lapse of 10 to 12 years from the burial the grave was opened, the remains of the deceased person exhumed, and a recently deceased buried in the same place. The contents of the original graves were then placed in special underground areas – charnel houses.
A three-chamber crypt was established under the paved floor of St James´ Church for these purposes probably in the 17th century. At the beginning the crypt filled slowly, but from the mid-18th century two large symmetric walls of remains from emptied church sepulchres were gradually built there. The rapid filling of the charnel houses was partly due to frequent plague and cholera epidemics that literally decimated the population. The ongoing lack of space for bones from emptied graves required that the charnel house be extended in 1741. The best solution appeared to be the extension of the new ossuary under the cemetery and its connection to the church crypt. The new ossuary, however, was filled in six years and the town council began to discuss its further extension with a connection to the Chapel of the Dead near the church. However, the construction of the connecting corridor was prematurely terminated in the middle of its originally planned length, and thus the original plan has never been implemented.
When both the crypt and the ossuary under the cemetery were full, the entrance staircase from the main nave of the church was sealed with a Latin-inscribed stone slab. Josephine reforms in 1784 lead to abolishing the church cemetery for hygiene reasons. The remains from the graves were placed in the crypt, the cemetery walls were pulled down, and the area around the church was paved with unnecessary tombstones. The ossuary, its size, and location fell into oblivion after some time.
In 2001 an archaeological and underground survey was carried out before starting the renovation of Jakubské square and its findings were a great surprise. Several pilot bore holes to the depth of four metres confirmed the existence of a large burial complex. The individual rooms were filled with huge volumes of human bones often up to the vault arches. The estimated number of people buried there exceeded 50 thousand. The anthropological analyses carried out so far have shown that the bones of the victims of mediaeval plague and cholera epidemics, as well as those of the Thirty Years´ War and Swedish sieges were placed in the ossuary.
The accumulated humidity and mould, if left untreated, would cause the gradual decomposition of bones and the collapse of the vault less than two metres under the busy roadway of Jakubské square. That is why the only way to preserve this unique monument was to renovate the ossuary and open it to the public. During the refurbishment, all remains were collected, cleaned and returned to their last resting place. Together with other archaeological finds, the exhibition shows the way of burying in one of the largest city cemeteries in Brno.
The “Opening of the Brno Underground to the Public” project is financed from the pooled funds of the Chartered City of Brno and the European Union (Regional Operational Programme NUTS II South-East). For more information please go to www.ticbrno.cz or www.brno.cz.