Consider the Putridarium

Sant’Andrea delle Frate is one of those jaw-dropping 17th century basilicas in Rome. It has angels by Bernini, a campanile by Borromini, and a room full of corpse toilets in the crypt.

Crypt at Sant'Andrea delle Frate in Rome

Crypt at Sant’Andrea delle Frate in Rome

Yep, we’re going there (again) with toilets and death. Because like Caitlin said, the unpleasant functions of the body are really good at reminding us of our own mortality. So isn’t the perfect memento mori really just a crypt full of toilets?

Now of course there aren’t actually modern flush toilets down there. It’s more like a room full of carved chairs with holes in the middle. Like a very public outhouse (for corpses). This type of crypt is called a putridarium and you can find them all over Catholic churches in Italy- as far north as Milan and all the way down to Sicily. They’re part of the old tradition of “double death” or “double burial” where the moment of death isn’t the end of the road. It’s just one stop on a journey that the corpse, and maybe more importantly, those who survive them are on.

Now I realize that Italian Catholicism can seem a little death-obsessed. Obviously the post-Vatican II Kumbaya guitar mass never really caught on there. So death is everywhere. Everywhere. Whether it’s carved in marble, set into the floor, or painted on the frescos, your eyeballs are pretty much guaranteed to stare into the empty sockets of a skull in any given church you walk into.

Exterior of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte in Rome, photo E. Harper

Exterior of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte in Rome, photo E. Harper

So of course these guys would look at death and burial and think, “Yeah, let’s do that. But twice.” And for a lot of people with a cursory curiosity in these kinds of symbols, the story ends there. Italians love death. Death is the end. Boom. Done. But Catholics also believe that saved souls go to purgatory, then heaven. Then after that they wait for final judgment and the renewal of the world. So for Catholics, death (and death imagery) represents the beginning of a whole new spiritual life. Physical death is just one stop on the line.

This idea of death being a really long process with different phases is acted out in the rituals that start in the putridarium. The fresh corpse is brought down and seated on one of the chairs with a hole in the center. There’s a strainer over the hole that ensures all the bones are saved as various goos and fluid drip out of the body and into the vat below.

Crypt at Chiesa Madre in Fiumedinisi. From Universitá degli Studi di Pisa

Crypt at Chiesa Madre in Fiumedinisi. From Universitá degli Studi di Pisa

This is, frankly, kind of a downer from the corpses’ point of view. No one wants to think about loosing their goo in front of everyone. But if you’re Catholic, purgatory is the spiritual corollary to the putridarium, and isn’t exactly a walk in the park either. Catholics believe that even if you die with all your sins forgiven, you’re still imperfect and imperfect beings are a no-go in heaven. So you have to burn those impurities away. Purgatory is all about purifying fire and punishment. Basically the only thing keeping it from being good old-fashioned hell is the fact that it’s temporary.

Purgatory by Annibale Carracci

Purgatory by Annibale Carracci

But hey, so is the putridarium! After a year or two the corpse turns into a pile of bones. After that the surviving family members or sometimes a clergy member can go down there and clean the bones so they’re white and pure (heavy on the symbolism, guys). Then bones can be arranged in an ossuary. The ossuary is their final resting place. It represents the soul out of purgatory at peace and the survivors are released from their duty to mourn. In fact, the ossuary is frequently a public part of the church or at least visible through a grate so it can serve as a reminder of souls in heaven. So yes, an ossuary is totally a stack of human bones and it’s totally not morbid.

But I hear you. You don’t believe in souls or heaven or purgatory or any of this invisible-sky-wizard business. I get it and I’ve read your letters, internet citizens. But I still like the putridarium! And I still think the putridarium is worthy of our consideration in a secular context.

Because here’s the thing. Even if that corpse is done-zo and there’s nothing after death, the survivors continue to care for the corpse and in doing so, care for themselves after a major loss. Within these Catholic death rituals, the bodies in the putridarium are tended to and dressed in new clothes as they rot. Sometimes public masses are said down in the crypt. And praying for the dead in purgatory is an important spiritual obligation for the living. But even if you take the religious aspect out of it, this adds up to taking a year or more to acclimate to the death of a loved one and in some cases actually watching their body change from someone you knew to an anonymous skeleton. Now confronting death slowly but in a real, visible way might remind you of the promise of eternal reward and inspire you to be a better person. Or it could remind you of the impermanence of life and inspire you to go paint a masterpiece or pet a dog. Either way, confronting death can be all about life. You don’t have to believe in anything to appreciate that.

Ossuary at San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. From Samuele Ghilardi

Ossuary at San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. From Samuele Ghilardi

Now one tiny caveat before I launch my Kickstarter campaign to build a putridarium in Los Angeles. Putridaria started falling out of use in the later part of the 17th century until their extinction in the early 20th century. Mostly because people believed they were unsanitary and that corpses emitted deadly effluvia or miasma. But if you’re caught up on your Ask a Mortician videos, you know that’s basically a bunch of bad science. But you know what’s not? The smell- the oh-so appropriately named cadaverine and putrescine that corpses emit as they decompose. And the bugs. Those are real too. So maaaybe you don’t want to have mass in your un-air conditioned basilica on a 100-degree scorcher in July above a dozen or so rotting friends. I get it. It’s an imperfect system. But consider the putridarium.



Fornaciari, Antonio. “Processi di Tanatometamorfosi: Pratiche di Scolatura dei Corpi e Mummificazione Nel Regno delle Due Sicilie”. Universitá degli Studi di Pisa, 10/04/2010. Web. 05/05/2014

Elizabeth Harper writes about saints’ relics for Atlas Obscura and on her blog, All the Saints You Should Know. She’s lectured on the subject at the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn and at Death Salon Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about relics in Rome. You can follow her on twitter @CadaverFormosus.

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  • Toonerific

    I am working on a project which will feature death and mortality for television. Is there a way I can pick your brain a bit? Please email me Thanks, Joshua

  • Morgan Stanfield

    Great article, as usual. Though I’m familiar with a few corpse-dressing rituals from non-Western cultures, this is a new one for me. I appreciate your exploration of the philosophical aspects of it, though, man, I’m so glad I didn’t have to do this with my loved ones.

  • Caryn F.

    Just saying, I would totally donate to that kickstarter…

  • Andrew Pepperstone

    This was a very interesting article. Burial in the ancient near east was similar. The body was put into a limestone cave for one year. Limestone is very good at helping the flesh decompose off of the bones. At the end of the year, the family would go and collect the bones and put them in a personal ossuary (bone box), and then put that in a larger crypt of some sort, and the cave would be ready for the next person. In the stories about Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, Abraham buys a double cave for Sarah, after she dies, and that cave is used for family burials for centuries. This is also a possible source of the term “gathered to your kin” for death, since, after you became bones, you were literally gathered to your kin.

  • reverend father

    You are wonderful!

  • otter

    I have long equated
    dying with vomiting, a physical process that we (or at least I) resist until
    there is no option. When racked with
    stomach pain I know that all I need to do is let go, toss my cookies, and I
    will feel better. While dying might be similar in terms of letting go, it
    is likely not a matter of feeling better but a matter of not feeling at all;
    and, unlike puking, dying is hopefully a onetime deal (please don’t resuscitate
    me). Death doesn’t scare me dying does. In fact, my primary concern
    about dying isn’t the idea of the physical discomfort as much as it is not
    wanting to be seen, heard, or smelled in a way that is unpleasant to others,
    which equals embarrassment for me. So, you might think that the idea of winding
    up on a toilet for a year whilst I decay might not be agreeable to me yet for
    some reason I think it sounds oddly reassuring.
    Perhaps, in part, because my post sentience plans are to go to a body
    farm where my remains can be used by forensic anthropologists, I am predisposed
    to the idea of my bits sitting about like a museum display, be it on a shelf in
    a lab or a stone commode in a basement.
    Regardless, I learned something new today and that is always good.

  • flame821

    I always thought they kept them there until they were skeletal remains as a sort of ‘sins of the flesh’ equivalence. Once the flesh was gone, purgatory was over and the soul moved on. Hence the reason saints supposedly did not decompose once dead, their flesh was pure/sinless.

    I know in the American SouthEast there are special ‘tombs’ within a family crypt that have stone and/or metal slates at the bottom that allow the bones to remain and when the next family member needs the spot the bones are gathered and placed in a niche since you can’t really bury anyone in the ground (high water table). But that is more a matter of practicality as opposed to spirituality.

  • Helen

    I had no idea these existed, but I suppose it makes sense if bones are then put in an ossuary – there had to be a formalised way of getting from corpse to skeleton, and all that flesh had to go somewhere.

    I have a question: did all classes of people do this? I was just wondering if it was something that the more wealthy would do, and the poorer wouldn’t be able to? Did they have to pay a fee to use the putridarium? Also, were there certain diseases people might die from which would make the putridarium unfeasible? For example, if someone died of something like cholera? And were they used in times of epidemics?

    I suppose I’m thinking here from my very British perspective (a land covered in neolithic burial mounds…!), it seems a bit alien to me not to bury someone (or cremate them). It surprised me when my parents moved to a place up in the mountains in Spain and I noticed the cemeteries were like little towns of apartment blocks where coffins were slid in above ground. I think in the past they would then be moved to ossuaries, but I’m not sure if they still do that. But of course, they wouldn’t bury them – they *couldn’t* bury them, because they’re up a mountain made of rock with very shallow earth and burial is impossible (a bit like Tibetan sky burials, in a way). I’m wondering if the Italian putridarium and ossuary evolved from a similar practical concern, where it isn’t possible to bury the dead because the soil is too shallow?

    (I transcribe parish registers so I’m a bit obsessed with burials, sorry! All those parish churches whose churchyards have all those thousands of people buried in them……. I’m amazed they all fit!).

    • Ragnhild “Goldilocks”

      The concern of fitting thousands of bodies in a single, small cemetery is mostly a problem if you assume only one body per plot. People were interred in the graveyard by the mediaeval church a few km north of my home for centuries until, in the early 1900s, the gravediggers demanded a new graveyard on the account that when digging a new grave they had to expect encountering at least 8-10 skulls.

      • Helen Barrell

        Oh, I realise they’re clearly putting more than one person in each grave. For instance, even now – my grandparents’ ashes are in the same plot (bought in the 1930s) as the ashes of two of my great-aunts, and the bodies of two of my great-grandparents. That’s 6 people all in one plot. And it’s a deep grave because they bought the plot intending it to be for the burials of two parents and their three children.

        I’d be interested to know how fast a body decomposes so that a plot can be re-used (and of course – the body might decompose, but what about the coffin?). Eventually it becomes impossible to reuse the space, though – such as Wivenhoe, in Essex:

        They buried over 5,000 people in nearly 200 years (from 1560-1751) – the churchyard was closed by sanitary inspectors in the 1850s (rather like the Bronte’s Haworth, where the burials pose a health risk). And it’s really not a large space (trying to work it out from Google Earth – it’s about 30m x 40m, and that’s with a big ol’ church sat in the middle of it). They buried about 30 people a year, but in time of epidemic (plague in 1603 when over 90 were buried, and small pox in 1762: the vicar left a note to say that 68 people were buried in total that year, 35 of whom died of small pox), when they’re having to open the ground for ten burials a month, they’re going to be constantly coming across other “residents”. Obviously there’s family graves, like the 1930s one I mentioned initially – a family buys a plot and buries deep to accommodate everyone – perhaps for poorer people there’s more of a mass-grave approach?

        And the rate they decompose does vary. Wivenhoe’s church is very near the river (hence the restricted size – it’s slap-bang in the middle of the village, not on the edge like in other villages, so the churchyard can’t be easily-extended into a field), so perhaps it meant damp conditions which led to faster decomposition. Hence, maybe it wasn’t the problem it might at first appear, until the population grew to such an extent by the mid 19th C that the ground couldn’t recycle fast enough for the number of burials it needed to accommodate.

        A friend of mine does archaeology occasionally and worked on St. Martin’s in the Bullring in Birmingham – in order to develop a huge shopping centre, they had to exhume the old burials. They were digging up old coffins, and sometimes found nothing inside them but fluid because the body had decomposed entirely, however, they were also coming across lead-lined Victorian coffins and the occupants were still recognisably human, with hair etc, like they’d died 20 years ago instead of 150 years ago. They were all “repatriated” to a cemetery on the edge of the city, making way for Debenhams and Wagamamas.

        It’s fun being a retired undertaker’s daughter….!

        • Ragnhild “Goldilocks”

          The cemetery I’m referring to may be a couple thousand m², but was probably in use for 300-900 years (we’re not entirely sure, but we know it was definitely in use in the mid-17th century). A conservative estimate of how many bodies were buried there is 10-15 000, and that’s just going by the ones we know from the mid-17th century onwards.

          • Helen Barrell

            Wivenhoe’s was open from about 800AD – but yes, a lot of people!

        • Yvonne Boots-Faubert

          In Holland, where my Dad is from, families ‘lease’ (rent?) a grave for like 10 or 15 years. Your unembalmed loved one is buried there. at the end of the time period, you have the option of renewing the lease on the grave, or if not, whatever is left goes into a mass grave. (When I was 12, my family went over to visit relatives, I had wanted to see my Opa (Dutch grandfather)’s grave, but it no longer existed. I was quite mortified to learn of their system of rent-a-grave (I’m from the US, where we went to visit my mom’s father and grandparents graves all the time….) Now that I’m older, it makes more sense, as the country is very small, and the people very practical.

  • fresquez

    This is one of the first articles I’ve read of yours and I think it is a fantastic read. You are great.

  • Astarte Borealis

    The first picture in the article seems to be wrongly atributed. It’s the cript from the Clarisses Convent in Castello Aragonese, Ischia, Italy.

  • Wubbsy

    So that’s why they sent security over to toss me out when I went in to attend to certain business…