Mummies and saints: Scientists found 'dark,' 'secret' lair under church altar in Lithuania? Really?

If you know anything about the history of sacred architecture, you know there is nothing strange about believers being buried inside church sanctuaries.

In fact, there is an ancient tradition of celebrating the Mass on altars built directly on or over the tombs of saints (see the New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia). In Eastern Orthodoxy, altars and sanctuaries still contain relics of the saints, usually fragments of bones. Consider this 2014 column I wrote about efforts to rebuild St. Nicholas Orthodox parish at Ground Zero in New York City.

Some people find these traditions creepy. But the whole idea was to link heaven and earth, for believers in this life to worship with the saints of old.

Perhaps this is rather advanced material, in terms of church history. Still, I assumed that some journalists (maybe even at the New York Times copy desk) would know that the altar of the most famous church on Planet Earth -- St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican -- is build directly over catacombs containing the tomb of St. Peter and other popes. Don't these people read Dan Brown novels?

I bring this up because of a strange passage in a recent Times science piece that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Mummies’ Medical Secrets? They’re Perfectly Preserved
Mummified bodies in a crypt in Lithuania are teaching scientists about health and disease among people who lived long ago.

As it turns out, the crypt in question is located underneath an altar in a Catholic church in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Let me stress that the science material in this story is, to my reading, really interesting and appears to be well handled. Here is the overture:

Hundreds of skeletons have lain scattered around a crypt beneath a church in Vilnius, Lithuania, for centuries. But 23 of these remains are unlike the rest: Flesh wraps their bones, clothes cover their skin, and organs still fill their insides.
They are mummies, and since they were recovered about five years ago, scientists have investigated their secrets, seeking insights into the lives of people in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the diseases they suffered.
“They are so well preserved that they almost look alive,” said Dario Piombino-Mascali, an anthropologist from Italy who has studied the mummies since 2011.
Recently, Dr. Piombino-Mascali and his colleagues have uncovered remnants of the smallpox virus in one of the mummies, gaining new insights into the origins of a deadly scourge that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Things get a bit strange a few paragraphs later, under a sub-headline that states: "A crypt in the heart of a capital."

This is the material that caught the eye of a GetReligion reader:

In the heart of Vilnius, Lithuania’s Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit is a bright masterpiece of Late Baroque architecture. But it hides something darker.
Inside, an altar stands behind a large wooden platform where people kneel and pray. Beneath this is a stone staircase so narrow it can admit only one person at a time. Researchers liken it to an entrance to a secret lair: The steps descend to a dark and dusty underworld.
A black metal gate leads to the labyrinthine chambers that house the corpses. Once, there were body parts piled into a pyramid on the floor and stacked on shelves that reached to the ceiling.

Really now? Researchers involved in this effort called this a "secret lair"? They have spent years working at this site without knowing the ancient Christian traditions linking altars and the burial of the saints?

This is a Dominican parish. Now, I don't know much about monastic traditions linked to that order, but is there any chance that the priests and monks associated with this order practice a tradition common in other orders -- which is to clean and stack the skulls and some bones of monks to make room for the burial of the newly dead?

Novices in these orders often spend time praying in these chambers. They are, in effect, praying with centuries of their colleagues and, at the same time, preparing for their own deaths. What about the famous catacombs in Paris?

Here is what the GetReligion reader had to say:

The article describes the crypt as a dark secret whereas I seriously doubt this is how it is viewed by practicing Catholics at the church. At least for this Lutheran who is almost totally unfamiliar with the church, it seems fairly fitting that the entrance to the crypt would be under the altar -- seems like good church architecture to me... a nice tie in with baptism and communion. Something about their souls at the altar in heaven with God...

In other words, to contrast secular language with faith language, is this catacomb a "dark" secret of a "bright" mystery?

Once again, let me stress that this is one detail in a larger story, a science report that deserves to be read on its own terms. In a way, I was not surprised that the Times science-desk team made this mistake, if "mistake" is the right word in this case.

What surprised me is that the researchers didn't explain why that burial chamber was located under an altar and that this practice is, in reality, quite common.

However, this ancient Christian tradition may not have been common knowledge among Communist scientists in the Soviet Union. Note this interesting detail later in this feature:

In the 1960s, a forensic scientist named Juozas Albinas Markulis became one of the first to study the mummies. He wanted to know whether there were victims from World War II mixed in among the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century corpses. (Oddly, Dr. Markulis is better known to Lithuanians not as a scientist but as a former spy who, while posing as a leader of the Lithuanian resistance, lured others into Soviet ambushes.)
Dr. Markulis and his students at Vilnius University identified 500 bodies in the crypt, of which about 200 had been mummified. In 1962, government officials inspected the crypt and ordered that the mummies be sealed behind glass, fearful that infected bodies might start an epidemic. They called it the Chamber of Death.
Soon a glass wall was erected, but it stopped the airflow and made the environment too humid and caused the mummies to decay.

Ah, the "Chamber of Death." It would be the exact opposite of the viewpoint found among those who built that chamber, in that holy location.

Should the Times correct this passage? I honestly don't know. That would probably require new material that wouldn't quite fit into this report. That is, of course, kind of my point.

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