Word of the Week: Ossuary

Ossuary is not a well-known word in the U.S., and that isn't surprising, because ossuaries aren't common here. They're more frequently used in Europe, particularly in places there that are short on burial space. The ossuary maximizes space by serving as a place to put bones. It's a secondary burial location, used only after human remains, buried in a short-term burial plot, have decomposed enough that the bones can be retrieved and moved. Those bones are then stored in the ossuary and additional burials can take place in that short-term area.

The word root is the Latin os, meaning bones. An ossuary is typically a room, though the word can also refer to a container for bones, similar to an urn. In the ossuary room, bones aren't strewn about but stacked carefully. A skeleton also doesn't generally stay together; rather, the bones are separated so that skulls will be stacked together, long bones will be stacked together and so on.

Among the most notoriously famous ossuaries is the James Ossuary, a box-style ossuary dating to the first century C.E. It's known for its Aramaic inscription: "Ya'akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua" ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). The archaeological world hasn't been able to determine just how authentic it is, but it's a tantalizing possibility that could represent a piece of the Biblical history puzzle.