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Ten Thousand Skulls

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the August 1865 Sword and Trowel


THE LITTLE VILLAGE OF GLYS, at the commencement of the famous Simplon Road, has a Church large enough to hold its inhabitants, should they all swell into Brobdignags, and occupy a pew each. When we passed the stone steps which lead up to the porch, they were strewn with boughs and blocked up with poles—the raw materials of the rustic finery to be displayed on the morrow, which was a high fête day. Inside the very clean and spacious edifice was an image of the Virgin Mary, very sumptuously arrayed, and placed upon a litter, so as to be carried about the streets in solemn procession—just as the heathen of old were wont to do with their gods. "They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth." What made the travelers pause and enter the Church? Certainly it was no respect for the idols or their shrines, but curiosity, excited by the grim information that here was a charnel house filled with skulls, ten thousand or more at a rough computation. Now we had seen skulls and bones at Chiavenna, all clean and white and carefully placed, so as to form double-headed eagles, crowns and all sorts of fanciful devices, and we had also passed bone-houses, where the heads of deceased villagers, all white as pipe-clay were arranged in orderly rows upon shelves, labeled with their names and the date of their decease; but ten thousand at once was a novelty of ghastliness not to be resisted. Was the information correct as to the number? Did it not sound like a gross exaggeration? It certainly struck us that we might allow a very liberal discount upon the sum total of horrors, and yet be perfectly competent; but we had no necessity to make any deduction, for, like the heads of the sons of Ahab, they lay before us in two heaps, and were there in full number. Under a chapel, which was decorated with scenery and flowers, not unlike a theater, was the dreary home of the departed. From its unglazed windows, through the iron bars, peered out thigh bones and skulls—these were the rear ranks of the army of the dead. We entered the portal, and for a moment could see nothing but a few skulls on the floor; but when our eyes were accustomed to the gloom, we saw plainly that on each side of a long chamber was a wall of grinning heads, with a leg bone under the chin of each; here and there they had fallen down, and the wall was in need of the sexton's decorating hand, but for the most part the pile was complete from floor to ceiling, and was from six to eight feet thick. A kneeling figure, in plaster, stuck up in the corner, half made us shiver, as it seemed to rise up from the floor of this hall of the dead like a sheeted ghost. At the far end were the usual appurtenances of Popish worship, and a comfortable place whereon to kneel amid the many remembrances of mortality. It was hard to avoid a sickening feeling in the midst of this mass of decay, but in our case this was overcome by wonder at the want of human tenderness in the religion which allows such needless and heartless exposure of the sacred relics of mortality. There they were, by dozens, on the floor, the skulls of old and young, male and female, and one could scarce avoid kicking against them; while, by hundreds, the grim congregation grinned from the wall on either side. Abraham said, "Bury my dead out of my sight" [Genesis 23:4]. and one felt that his desire was natural, decent, tender, and manlike; but of that horrible collection, open to the bat or the dog, or to every idle passer-by, what could be said but that they were an abomination and an offense.
    To what purpose have we brought our reader into this region of desolation? It is that he may ask, as we did, the question; "Who slew all these?" These thousands are but as the small dust of the balance, compared with the mountains of death's prey. These are but the ashes of the generations of one small hamlet—what vast mausoleum could contain the departed inhabitants of our great cities—the millions of Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, London, Pekin? What a mighty Alp might be formed of the corpses of the men of vast and populous empires, who these thousands of years have been born only to die! Surely the dust, which daces in the summer's sun, is never free from atoms once alive and human. The soil we tread, the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, in all these there must, doubtless, be particles once clothing an immortal soul. In lovely flower, and singing bird, and flitting insect, there may be, perhaps, there must be, crumbling elements of mortal flesh and bone, new moulded by the Master-hand. How perpetually does that question press itself upon us—Whence came the shafts which so surely reach the heart of life, and lay humanity in rotting heaps? Men of sceptical views have appealed to science, and have tried to shew that death is an inevitable law of nature, and is to be viewed as a matter of course, having no more to do with sin or holiness than the fall of a stone by gravitation; but we are content with the divine teaching, that "by man came death." We confess that it is more than possible that creatures expired in agony and pain long before the time of man; but is it quite so clear that what may have occurred in periods before our age, upon animals alone, can be made to contradict a statement which relates to man, and to man only? From whatever cause animals may or may not die, the fact that man dies, as the result of Adam's sin, is not affected thereby. For aught we know, the law of morality might have ruled over all non-intellectual creatures, and man made in the image of his Maker, might have remained immortal evermore. Such a state of things probably never did exist, but it is enough for our enquiry that it might have been so, and that the supposition is not irrational.
    If it be contended that the condition of the animal creation is bound up with the state and position of man,—without venturing into speculations, we are quite willing to accept the statement, and yet we are not at all perplexed by the fact of death before sin, and the doctrine that death is the result of sin. He who foresees and foreordains all things, has of old constituted the creation, upon the foresight of that death which he foreknew would reign, as the result of sin, over man and the creatures linked with him. Had not sin and death been foreseen, as part of the great epic of earth's history, it may be that there had been no brute creation at all, or else an undying one; but since the existence of evil in man, and his consequent fall, was a portion of the great scheme of history which was always present before the divine mind, he made the world a fitting stage for the triumphs of his redeeming love, by permitting the creation to groan and travail under subjection to vanity, in solemn harmony with the foreknown state of fallen man.
    We are not disposed to accept all the statements of geologists as facts, but even if we were credulous to the last degree concerning their discoveries, we should still hold the Bible, in its every jot and tittle, with unrelaxing grasp, and should only set our brain to work to find ways of reconciling fact and revelation, without denying either. We unhesitatingly accept the inspired declaration, that "sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." What a view of the evil and mischief of sin have we here in this charnelhouse! What a murderer is transgression! What a deadly poison is iniquity. O earth, earth, earth, scarce canst thou cover the slain! Thy caverns reek with death! And as for thee, O sea, thy waves are glutted with the bodies of the mariners, whom thou hast swallowed up! Sin is the great manslayer! Red-handed, with garments dyed in blood, sin stalks through the land, and leaves its awful tracks in tears, and pains, and graves, and charnel-houses, such as this; would God it were no worse; but, alas, we must complete the picture, its trail is eternal damnation, it kindles the flames of Tophet, which burn even to the lowest hell.
    A gleam of sunlight strays into the gloomy assembly of the dead, and as our eye drinks it in, our heart cheerfully hears another question? "Can these dry bones live?" So dry, so chalklike, so pierced by worms, so broken, so powdered, so scattered, so mixed up with other existences—blown by the winds, ground into dust, carried along by streams, lost, forgotten, unknown, can these dry bones live. As the top of one great mountain may be seen from another which towers to an equal height, so this one question may be breasted in all its greatness by another, and as the second, enquiry deals with a familiar fact, it may ease the difficulties which faith and reason may find in the first: Have these dry bones lived? Is it possible that out of those sockets looked merry eyes, sparkling with laughter, or orbs of grief, flowing with tears? Did that hollow globe hold thought and emotion, love and hate, judgment and imagination? That yawning mouth, did it ever cry, "Abba, Father," or chant the Morning Hymn, or utter discourses which thrilled the heart? How can it have been possible? How could mind be linked with such poor crumbling matter? How could this earthy substance which men call bone, be in intimate, sentient, and vital connection with. a soul which thought and. reasoned? As well tell us that stones have walked, that rocks have danced, that mountains have fought in battle, as that spirits, full of intellectual and emotional power, have once quickened this poor brittle clay; nay, more, walking, dancing, and fighting, are actions which brutes might perform, and involve no exercise of judgment and emotion, and therefore the wonder would not be so great as this before us, when we see that hollow circular box made of earth, and know that it was once essential to intellect and affection. Yet it is certain that these bones once lived; why not again? It is only because it is usual and common that life does not strike us as an equal miracle with resurrection. Let the wisest of our race attempt to animate the most accurate model which the most skillful anatomical model could prepare, and he would soon learn his folly. Omnipotence is needed to produce and maintain one life; granted omnipotence, and impossibility vanishes, and even difficulty ceases to exist.
    Believing that these shall live again, what then? In what body shall they come? What will be their future, and where? Are these the bones of saints, and will they rise all fair and glorious in the image of their exalted Lord, just as the shriveled seed starts up a lovely flower, begetting and beautiful? Will they mount from the chrysalis of death into the full imago of perfection, just as yon fly, with rainbow wings, has done? Will they march, like the ten thousand Greeks, in dense phalanx, from this their narrow city? And will they know each other in their new condition, and preserve a manifest identity, even as Moses and Elias did, when they appeared upon the mount? Many questions, both answerable and unanswerable, are suggested by these poor relics of humanity. They are great teachers, these silent sleepers! But it may be more profitable to leave them all, and our speculations too, and permit one reflection to abide with us, as we leave the close and dismal vault for the purer air without; that reflection is this, "I, too, shall soon be as these are." It may be, through the care of kindly survivors, that my body shall rest where no curious travelers shall gaze thereon; no moralist may muse on death with my skull in his hand; and yet I must be even as these are. How vain then is life! How certain is death! Am I ready for eternity? This is the only business worthy of my care. Go ye vanities to those who are as vain as you are! Thoughtful men live solemnly, regarding this life as but the robbing-room for the next, the cradle of eternity, the mould wherein their future must be cast. If we rightly think upon this well-known truth, it will have been a healthy thing to visit the chambers of the dead.
    On the Sacro Monte, at Varallo, is a supposed imitation of the sepulcher of the Lord Jesus. It was a singular thing to stoop down and enter it, of course finding it empty, like the one which it feebly pictured. What a joyful word was that of the angel, "He is not here!" Sweet assurance—millions of the dead are here in the sepulcher, thousands of saints are here in the grave, but HE is not here. If he had remained there, then all manhood had been for ever imprisoned in the tomb, but he who died for his Church, and was shut up as her hostage, has risen as her representative, surety and head, and all his saints have risen in him, and shall eventually rise like him. Farewell, charnel house, thou hast no door now, the imprisoning stone is rolled away. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

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