I wanted to do something special to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. Simply going to Prague seemed enough, until Mason read me a bit from the Cadogan City Guide: “The ossuary dates from 1511, when a half-blind monk began gathering together all the bones from abolished graves and putting them in the crypt. It sounds an unenviable task, but it had a practical purpose and was the product of strange times; what’s harder to understand is why, as late as 1870, a woodcarver was hired to arrange the 40,000 sets of bones into pleasing patterns.”
I had to see that. I decided to mark my birthday among the dead.
The journey itself proved something of an adventure. Even though the city of Kutná Hora lay only seventy-odd kilometers outside Prague, no buses went there directly. We’d have to transfer in Kolín. The bus out of Prague was top of the line, complete with magazine pockets and reading lights. The second bus, from Kolín to Kutná Hora, was a good thirty years older, with worn green knit seat covers, a linoleum floor, and a pinup behind the driver’s seat of a blond German girl whose white nightie had slipped off her unusually large breasts. The bus wove down a single lane, meandering through pretty and mostly uninhabited farmland. At one point, a dump truck met us on a blind curve and the woman behind me said the Czech equivalent of “Yikes!” My thoughts exactly.
At Kutná Hora, the “station” turned out to be a collection of bus stops. The map of town, behind its yellowed plastic, had been defaced enough to be unreadable. I guessed that this burg wasn’t as big a tourist destination as I’d thought. We followed the other passengers, hoping they’d lead us toward the center of town, where we might get directions in English.
Judging from the bus line, Kutná Hora had come a long way down in the world. It began as a small mining village. In the second half of the thirteenth century, villagers discovered rich veins of silver. The Czech king took over the mines and Kutná Hora (“mining mountain” in Czech) became the second most important town in Bohemia. The Prague groschen, a silver coin circulated throughout Europe, was minted here. By the fourteenth century, five or six tons of silver were extracted per year, making the king the richest ruler in Central Europe. Eventually the silver veins tapped out and the mint closed in 1727. Since then, the town lapsed into being a peaceful backwater with some world-class medieval churches.
We walked past signs pointing toward kostnice, the ossuary. I can only read two Czech words, the other being hrbitov or cemetery. Mason and I found a tobacco shop, as the guidebook suggested, but the couple inside spoke no English. We managed to ask for a map and they gave us directions in Czech, explaining that we could walk the kilometer to Sedlec easier than waiting for the local bus. For four people who spoke no common language, we had an extremely pleasant interaction. This birthday would be the best one yet.
The modern road to Sedlec, the suburb where the ossuary is located, led past some charmless Communist apartment blocks, through grassy vacant lots, then toward a French-style cathedral. The Cistercian community at Sedlec predates the town of Kutná Hora by nearly two hundred years. Early in the twelfth century, the Burgundian monastery of Cîteaux reformed the old Benedictine monastic rule so that physical labor became an acceptable way to praise God. Since they considered active beautification of the world comparable to prayer, the monks made everything their monasteries owned and used. The Cistercian movement spread quickly across Europe. Founded in 1141, Sedlec has the oldest Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic. You can bet that the monks were thrilled when their neighbors discovered silver.
As we neared the church, signs directed us to turn left for the ossuary. How unexpected! I’d assumed the Cistercians built their ossuary in a crypt below their cathedral.
The Plague Column in Kutna Hora.
The street turned again at a Plague Column and I knew we were in the right place. Ten years after Kutná Hora received its royal charter, thirty thousand bodies — roughly the population of London at the time — had already been buried in the Sedlec graveyard. In 1318 the Black Death increased that number immensely.
At the close of the fourteenth century, the Cistercians build a small Gothic church in the middle of their immense graveyard. Called the Church of All Saints, it had an empty crypt downstairs and a chapel above. Because the graveyard was filling so quickly, the Cistercians decided to dig up the oldest bodies and store their bones inside the church, leaving the ground outside available for new burials. This sort of exhumation occurred commonly in Medieval Europe. The Church proclaimed that, to have any hope of Heaven, the dead had to be buried in holy ground. With Papal permission, the ground part could be discarded. An ossuary in a church was still holy, even if the bones remained visible for all to see.
Only a tiny churchyard remains of the once-vast graveyard. Most of the modern monuments were high-gloss black marble engraved with names picked out in white, but a solitary granite muse stood among them. On another grave, a little girl angel kissed the cheek of a little marble boy. The strangest marker was an automobile’s steering wheel surmounted by a red star on a pole, a memento of the Soviet regime.
In 1421, Protestant troops led by Jan Hus attacked Sedlec, martyred the monks, burned the cathedral, and plundered the cemetery church. New monks arrived in 1454 to live in the monastic ruins, but the little church continued in a state near collapse until the order saved the money to renovate in 1661. Another thorough restoration and reconstruction was completed in 1870, when they rearranged the bones. Enclosed in scaffolding when we visited, the Church of All Saints looked to be about the size of a modest two-story house. In the latest remodeling of the original chapel, they seemed to be re-coppering the cupolas atop its twin spires.
When we arrived, the door to the chapel stood open. That seemed promising. The guidebook included directions for how to find someone with keys to open the place, but we appreciated not needing to track anyone down.
A large dark-haired matron sat at a table inside the door. “English?” she asked, already bored with our answer. We bought tickets for sixty Czech crowns, about two dollars. She said a photo pass cost another 30 Kc, which we gladly paid. Postcards and viewbooks and a guide to the ossuary in English covered her table. I was too excited to look at them. It had taken us nearly three hours to reach the place. I wanted to see it!
She handed us a laminated one-page explanation in English of the ossuary’s history. The graveyard had been sanctified in 1278, when Abbot Heidenreich brought a jar of dirt back from Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem on which Christ is said to have been crucified. With its handful of dirt, the little graveyard became the most popular resting place in Central Europe. People literally came to Sedlec to die. Corpses got carted in from hundreds of miles away. The graveyard had originally extended all the way down the block to the cathedral, but the church sold land when times were hard.
My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.
Above the staircase to the crypt, the bone decor began. A daisy chain of skulls, crossed bones wired beneath them, traced the arch. In alcoves on either side of the foyer stood chalices assembled from bones. Long bones from the arms formed the bases, topped with a layer of shoulder blades. Then the lacy architecture of tailbones supported a complex arrangement of smaller bones: round knobs I couldn’t identify, flat disks that might have been kneecaps, the slender bones of forearms. The bells of the cups had been shaped from thighbones and topped with skulls. It took my breath away.
As cool as the inside of a refrigerator, the relatively dark chapel didn’t smell of death, or rot, or even of mold. There wasn’t a hint of corruption in the crypt. Despite the stained and crumbling plaster on the walls, the scent seemed curiously neutral.
At the foot of the steps, the ossuary’s designer had signed his name and the date of completion in bones. Frantisek Rint had been a woodcarver before he decorated the ossuary. I wondered how he got the job. How does one train to make art of the dead?
Each corner of the crypt held a huge pyramid of bones. I suffered a momentary flicker of disappointment. With forty thousand skeletons, each with an excess of two hundred bones, I had expected to see many objects arranged from bones. But this was not a catacomb in the Parisian sense, not a labyrinth of tunnels full of bones stretching away underground. The Sedlec ossuary filled only a room. A small room. You could twirl around in the center of it and see the bones of all 40,000 people, most of them stacked in these four huge pyramids. We’d traveled halfway around the world for this?
Still, the pyramids were huge. Throughout the world, throughout history, pyramids linked heaven and earth and symbolized earthly reality governed by heavenly order. Suspended above the pyramids hung tarnished silver crowns, signifying the promise of Heaven for those who’d died as Christians.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale from this, but those are adult skulls. Extrapolate.
Small wooden signs instructed us not to touch. Like I’d want to topple that! Cages enclosed the pyramids, ornate iron bars reaching floor to ceiling. I wonder when they’d been installed to keep back the hoi polloi.
My disappointment soon passed and I reached for my camera. An eight-armed chandelier of bones blossomed in the center of the room, as fragile and delicate as lace. Who had cleaned all those bones? I wondered. Their uniform whiteness denied that they’d ever been buried in the dirt. Jawbones strung end-to-end formed loops like links of chain. The gentle slats of shoulder blades fanned out to form platters which supported skulls. The intricate architecture of tailbones provided a repeating motif. The craftsmanship that went into the chandelier stunned me. Its beauty changed me forever even as I stood there trying to make sense of it.
What inspired someone to make something like this? I’ve seen mobiles made of every bone in a cat, boiled clean and hung from filament: the mystic form of a cat. I’ve seen medical skeletons, wired together and hung from a hook bolted through their skulls. But this: skeletons scattered, disarticulated into design elements…what would possess a person to do this to the dead?
It didn’t seem sacrilegious. In fact, the overwhelming sense of the place was peaceful. Contemplative.
I wondered how the raw materials had been arranged for Rint to work from: a pile of skulls, a pile of ribs, a pile of long bones? Or did the woodcarver paw through the jumble of skeletons until — aha! — he found just the decorative object he needed? How familiar had he been with human anatomy before he began? Did he recognize what all he worked with or didn’t he spare it a thought, reducing the bones to mere sizes and shapes?
The chandelier hung maybe seven feet above our heads — low enough that it seemed you could jump up and make it swing. Candleholders perched atop the skulls, but no trace of wax marred their perfect round blankness. The Cadogan book said that, until very recently, the church used to light candles in the chandelier on November 2, All Souls’ Day — celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead. A priest used to intone the requiem mass inside the charnel house. Apparently, church officials decided that the masses were “out of step with modern Catholicism,” but services are still sometimes held in the chapel. I wish I’d thought to write ahead for a schedule. That would have been something to see.
Below the chandelier rose four obelisks adorned with skulls and heavy silver sconces. Since ancient times, the obelisk has been considered the architectural materialization of a ray of light. It symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, the supremacy of God’s Heaven. Atop one of these obelisks hunkered a fat pink cherub with stubby gold wings. Its hyper-Romantic cuddliness disturbed me more than the bones did — it seemed so artificial and unnecessary, deeply out of place.
On the back of the obelisk farthest from the guard, kids had scrawled on the skulls with black felt-tips. I felt too scandalized to read the inscriptions. I can’t grasp the urge to tag a stranger’s bones. Did the graffitist feel he cheated Death? My reaction was visceral, outraged. Disrespecting the dead, to me, seemed worse than defacing the church.
Beyond the obelisks opened an alcove with a crucifix. The pallid Christ drooping there seemed drained of blood. His head lolled forward, devoid of will. His mouth hung slack. It dawned on me that this Christ was dead.
I’d read about such things, but never seen one. Although I grew up in a Presbyterian church, where the crucifix was anathema, I understand that generally crucifixes represent Christ in torment, suffering for the sins of the world. The suffering of the representative before me had ended. His spirit had moved on. Pinned to the cross like a butterfly in a museum case — what, I wondered, did this corpse of Christ signify?
He was the only flesh-clad cadaver in this cellar full of anonymous bones. However, the dead Christ wasn’t there to be worshipped. I saw no chairs in which to sit and pray, no cushion on which to kneel.
The sense was not that the mystery had been performed, but that it was yet to come. It reminded me of the Good Friday celebration I saw in Athens. The sense I had in this chapel, more than anything, was the pressure of anticipation. All these Christians died with the certainty that they would wait until the Trump of Doom sounded before they being called into the presence of God and judged worthy to enter Heaven. The idea that Grandma waits for us in Heaven is a new one: prior to the eighteenth century, everyone went to the grave to rest until the end of time and the final judgment.
At the time of my visit in 1998, the millennium bore down upon us. These dead had waited six hundred years to reach their just rewards. I wondered if the peace I felt in the chapel would change once the millennium passed without bringing the apocalypse. Would the 40,000 spirits grow restive, angry? Or would they continue to wait until God called them home? I suppose the dead are nothing if not patient.
I am not patient. I hope to be busy until the moment my death catches me. I do not want to wait in a hole in the ground, even somewhere as beautiful as the Church of All Saints, for the possibility of resurrection. If this life is all I have, then I had better get busy making the most of it. It was a sobering thought for a birthday, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
This was published in my book All You Need is Morbid, which is available for free on Wattpad. It was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #3.
More information on the Sedlec Ossuary is here.
Books about ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:
The Empire of Death
Skulls and Skeletons
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.