*** DEBUG END ***

The Bishop’s house built on bones

19 April 2024

A new film reveals the ossuary beneath the Bishop’s house in Worcester, Pat Ashworth reports


Inside the Worcester charnel house

Inside the Worcester charnel house

WHEN Shakespeare’s Juliet is voicing all the nightmare scenarios that would be preferable to having to marry Paris, at the top of her defiant imaginings is being in a charnel house, “O’ercovered quite with dead men’s rattling bones With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls”.

Such a charnel house, or ossuary, lies beneath a trapdoor in the basement of the town house adjacent to Worcester Cathedral which became the home of Dr John Inge. He and his wife, Denise, and their two children, moved in after his enthronement as Bishop of Worcester in 2008. The couple knew from the documentation that it existed. The house had been built on the medieval foundations of the one allotted to the charnel-house priest, whose sole duty in pre-Reformation times was to pray for the souls of the dead.

It had never been photographed, and was surrounded locally by an air of mystery. Not long after the Inges moved in, news that recently excavated remains from the Anglo-Saxon period were to be added — 81 of them under the age of 15, and 38 of these being foetuses, stillborn babies, and infants — aroused a fierce protective instinct in Dr Denise Inge: “I feel I want to make a soft place in the charnel house for these particular bones,” she wrote in A Tour of Bones, published by Bloomsbury in 2014, after her death earlier that year.

“I want to place them in white cotton and silk, tread carefully as I head for the exit, be gentle with the latch. I want to tell their long-dead mothers they will be all right with me.”

She describes her first descent into the space, to find “no neat bones. Instead, there is nothing here but the chaos of death: bones heaped on bones in disarray, indignity upon indignity, jaw upon pelvis, femur upon cranium, as if they had fallen into a freeze while wrestling at the moment the door was opened. They lie in sloping piles that seem to reach almost to the arched stone ceiling that I can see as I raise the candle up.”

Reflecting on the weirdness of “sharing your house with hundreds of skeletons”, she resolved that she must “[stay] with the uncomfortable sight of bare bones until I fear neither them nor the message of mortality that they utter. It consists in looking at myself without the flesh on.”

So, an adventurer from childhood, she embarked on a journey across Europe to visit four distinctive charnel houses: in Czermna, Poland, where bodies from the mass graves of war victims were painstakingly transferred as a message of reconciliation in 1776; Sedlec, in the Czech Republic, where the bones have been orchestrated into decorative works that include a giant chandelier; Hallstatt, in Austria, where the bleached skulls are all of named people from the locality; and Naters, in Switzerland, where the words above a gilded statue of the crucified Christ read (in translation): “Who you are, we were. What we are, you shall be.”

It is at Naters — open to passers-by and consequently an integrated part of local life — that she reaches the conclusion: “I see here, with my cheek against the grille, with my face leaning absolutely as close as it can to these terrible images, that I am no longer looking, as I did in other charnel houses, at the macabre dead, at an interesting piece of political or social history, or at an artist’s installation.

“I am, finally, looking at myself. . . Here, the dead, despite being nameless, are so intimate beneath their chilling motto as to be a mirror to that most familiar of all things, the self. They are not only human like us, they are us. They are a prophecy of our unavoidable future.”


THE book is exquisite: a meditation on life and death through the lens of the charnel house. Denise Inge, a gifted writer and an authority on Thomas Traherne, had all but completed it when she was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, leading her, as she reflected on the questions posed by each of the four charnel houses, to conclude, with surprise, that “Preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing.”

She died on 20 April, Easter Day, 2014. By what her husband described as events “entirely serendipitous or rather, providential”, it came to light that Simon Lucas, the director of photography for a local video production company, Conteur, had been captivated for years by the existence of the charnel house, after reading about it in a book by a local historian, Anne Bradford. He had interviewed her as a student, and remained fascinated.

And so Conteur embarked on filming a documentary, Life over Death, to be shown in the cathedral as near as possible to Easter Day this year. Just as the film crew were the first members of the public to descend into the charnel house, the screening, on 9 March, was the first time ever that images of the charnel house had been seen.

The short film, in which the Bishop reflects on the hardness and brevity of the life led by those whose bones lie in the charnel house, and speaks poignantly of his wife as a woman “full of life and zest, beautiful inside and outside, an incredibly gifted writer with poetry in her soul”, is haunting and beautiful, and is up for consideration at film festivals this year. The film won Best Documentary at the Worcester Film Festival, and was a finalist at the Liverpool Film Festival. The company is waiting to hear about 20 further entries.

Gillian Davies, who directed it, described with wonder her first sight of the bones — her first physical contact with “six feet of bones under my feet, a human bone path that you walk over. . . Because here are these people that haven’t lived for hundreds upon hundreds of years. I felt hugely privileged to be down there.

“That’s one thing. But also, it’s thinking, ‘Here they are. Here’s a personal skull that I am holding, and this person, once upon a time, had thoughts, feelings, a life. And here I am, many centuries later, holding his head in my hands.’ It’s absolutely incredible. It started out as a historical piece, but what it forces you to do is analyse mortality. And that, in the end, was what we wanted the film to be about.

“We completely understand how living above the charnel house had such a hugely profound effect on Denise when she got her terminal-cancer diagnosis. To do the film alongside Bishop John was extraordinary. He is one of the most incredible people I have ever had the good fortune to spend time with.”

For Mr Lucas, too, the experience has been extraordinary. “I’ve wanted to see this place for decades,” he said. “Nothing can prepare you for the absolute chaos of the charnel house. There’s nowhere you can go without climbing over bones, some of whom have been here for over a thousand years.”


THE Bishop reflected on the sensitivity that the family has always felt to the peace in the house: something that, he believes, is probably attributable to the quantity of prayers said for the dead by the charnel-house priest.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most people would have walked to church through a graveyard in which were people that they knew, he suggests; “so death was very much a part of life. And anyone looking back in their family tree will find that the average life expectancy in Victorian times was quite low. Most people would have lost a sibling or a relative or a friend. But there is a sense in which we don’t like talking about death. As Christians, we ought to think really of death as being the final healing, the final letting go.

“Denise had pretty much finished the text before she was diagnosed with cancer. She put in some extra paragraphs. But it was almost as if she had a premonition about it. She did become very fascinated by the charnel house, and the book is really a meditation on life, this notion that she came up with of life not being precious, but, rather, delicious.”

At the time of our conversation, the Bishop was in the cathedral preparing to host the Royal Maundy Service the following day. The King’s enforced absence, and the way in which he had expressed himself about his illness (News, 9 February), had led people to reflect on the tendency to take health for granted, the Bishop suggested, concluding that the film had been “a wonderful way to be able to honour Denise ten years after she died”.

Denise Inge herself concluded in the book: “Four charnel houses, it seems, have asked four disquieting questions. Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed? Have you found the lasting hope? What are the things for which you will be remembered? Are you on the path of true humility?

“Around the globe, over millennia and across cultural and religious divides, human bones speak a language of common respect. I think I understand now at least part of why that is. I think it is because these bones are not merely the remains of a particular person. They are carriers of our common humanity and bearers of shared hopes and fears.”


Life over Death is due for release at the end of 2024, when it will be available on the company’s social pages and its website: conteur.co.uk

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)