For my birthday last weekend, my husband Mason bought me a book I’d only seen mentioned on the internet. We were in the Wacko store in Hollywood and I missed it the first time I looked over the rack, but he sent me back to give the highlighted new books another look. That time, I picked up the book without even cracking its cover. I wanted it so strongly that my arms quivered as I clutched it to my chest.
It’s called The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. On its cover is an amazing photo of the bones of Saint Pancratius standing in gilded armor. Inside it’s so full of color photos that the book is really heavy. There are essays early charnel houses, the “Counter-Reformation Macabre,” “Spiritualism and Mythology in the Bone Pile,” and a chapter on “Ossuaries as Commemorative Sites,” which includes the skulls taken from Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
I waited to page through the book until we got back to our host’s house. It’s filled on one amazing place after another. There were a lot I’ve visited — the Cappuchin catacombs of Rome, the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora, the Paris ossuary — but I’ve never gotten so close to the bones or taken such lovely photos.
There were so many, many places I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit: the mummies of Guanajuato, the Cappuchin catacombs in Palermo, and the catacombs of the monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru. And all the places I’ve never heard of before: the Capela dos Ossos in Campo Maior (Portugal), the Crypt of St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe (which I didn’t realize was in England), the Chapel of Skills in Czermna, Poland. I was almost ill with envy that the author and photographer Paul Koudounaris had been able to take such a world-spanning journey to see so many lovely and thought-provoking things in person.
Some of the photos were intense, even for me: the plague crucifix covered in running sores, the bug-eaten corpses in the Chiesa dei Morti in Urbania. I had a moment of vertigo as I tried to tally up all the skeletons displayed in these pictures. There are a lot of dead people in this world on display.
There’s nothing like a memento mori to brighten a birthday. The Empire of Death is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.
My husband Mason bought me this beautiful book at the Franz Kafka Bookstore on the Old Town Square in Prague. It’s listed on Amazon.com for $140, but let me tell you, this is one beautiful book!
Memento Mori focuses solely on the Sedlec ossuary outside of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. In 44 plates, the book obsessively documents the Church of All Saints and the bone decor inside. Each photograph floats atop a deeply black mat and is faced by a stark white page, so your attention is focused again and again on the exquisite artistry with which Rint organized the dead.
The photographers were given over a year, using only natural light, to capture the images in these black and white photos. The long exposures required to shoot the dim ossuary give the bones — especially the skulls — a luminous quality. Often it seems that a spiritual glow infuses the images, radiating from the bones themselves or streaming in through the opaque windows. The photographs imply that this is a holy space.
The photographers were allowed access unavailable to your average tourist with a $2 photo pass. They slipped behind the iron grates fencing off the pyramids to reveal the cant of disintegrating geometry as the skulls rolled out of place. They climbed over the rail into the sacred alcove to shoot the monstrance lens to eye socket. They documented cobwebs and shattered skulls and the crumbling plaster of the walls, revealing the sadness and decay behind the breathtaking chandelier and chalice. Words are unnecessary when you view these photographs.
However, explanatory text is provided. First in Czech, then in English, finally in German, the essayists address the chronicle of the ossuary and debate the impact of its artistry. In his first essay, Mojmír Horyna details the history of the Cistercian order and discusses the artistic motifs of the ossuary design. He finds that the skull and crossbones is the most effective compositional element of the ossuary. In fact, garlands of skulls and crossbones do swoop across the groined ceiling of the church. However, Horyna claims that Rint’s “Romantic” decoration transformed the church into the empire of death triumphant, having stripped the “vanity of life of its beauty and joy.” I can’t disagree with him more. I found the ossuary almost indescribably beautiful. My confrontation with all those skulls left me feeling buoyed, full of joy that I am still alive. Perhaps there’s a large gap in our ages?
I suspect from his second essay (“Place of the Triumph of Death and of Hope in the Resurrection”), Horyna is a staunch Catholic, and perhaps a priest. He discusses briefly the 19th century slogans of praxis and will, defining the Romantic Movement as fascinated and horrified by death. He claims Rint “tuned” the ossuary “into the macabre tones of a hymn of death.” Proceeding onward, he claims that the modern pilgrim cannot possibly discover the ossuary in the manner in which it was intended. He’s pissed that the space is now a tourist attraction, to which modern visitors are drawn by curiosity. “Mass curiosity,” he writes, “operating under the slogan of demands for access to all facts, for the abolition of all secrets, and for the right to easy knowledge which, of necessity is superficial, leads to the banalisation of the world.” Whoa, buddy. Just because I didn’t grow up Catholic in Soviet Czechoslovakia does not mean that I cannot understand or appreciate what I’ve seen. In fact, I’m insulted by the insinuation that tourism, which is now funding renovation of the church, is evil in any way. Without my admission money, pal, your cultural icon would crumble to dust.
Probably, in Horyna’s opinion, those of you reading this review would not appreciate these spectacular photographs in a manner of which he would approve. I say, visit if you can. If you can’t, track this lovely book down. Insulting text aside, it is very worth owning.
Amazon seems to be able to get you a copy here: Memento Mori
This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #3.
Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice)
Zamecká 127, Kutná Hora – Sedlec, 284 03 Czech Republic
Information Center telephone +420 326 551 049
English email: firstname.lastname@example.org Founded: After 1400 Number of skeletons: up to 40,000 Open: Daily November – February from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and April – September from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. In October and March, it is open from 9 a.m. until 5. It’s closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Admission: Adult admission is 60 CZK. Students are 40 CZK. When I visited, they asked an additional 30 kroner for a photo pass. English-language guidebooks were for sale, as well.
The city of Kutná Hora lies only 70-odd kilometers outside Prague. It began as a small mining village. In the second half of the 13th 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 14th century, five or six tons of silver was extracted per year, making the Bohemian 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.
From the bus station, follow the signs toward the kostnice, Czech for ossuary. It’s an easy kilometer-long walk, much faster than waiting for the local bus.
The graveyard was 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 Cistercian 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. Ten years later, 30,000 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 dramatically.
At the close of the 14th century, the Cistercians built a small Gothic church in the middle of their immense graveyard. The Church of All Saints appears to be about the size of a modest two-story house with a crypt below its chapel. 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, since 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 easily discarded. An ossuary in a church was still holy, even if the bones remained visible for all to see.
In 1421, Protestant troops led by Jan Hus attacked Sedlec, martyred the monks, burned their cathedral nearby, 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 Frantisek Rint — a woodcarver — rearranged the bones.
Above the staircase to the crypt, the bone decor begins. A daisy chain of skulls, crossed bones wired beneath them, traces the arch. In alcoves on either side of the foyer stand chalices assembled from bones. Long bones from the arms form the bases, topped with a layer of shoulder blades. Then the lacy architecture of tailbones supports a complex arrangement of smaller bones: flat disks that might be kneecaps, the slender bones of forearms. The bells of the cups are shaped from thighbones and topped with skulls. It’s breathtaking.
As cool as the inside of a refrigerator, the relatively dark chapel doesn’t smell of death, or rot, or even of mold. There isn’t a hint of corruption in the crypt. Despite the stained and crumbling plaster on the walls, the scent seems curiously neutral.
Each corner of the crypt holds a huge pyramid of bones. With 40,000 skeletons, each with an excess of 200 bones, one might expect to see many objects arranged from bones. But this is not a catacomb in the Parisian sense, nor a labyrinth of tunnels full of bones stretching away underground. The Sedlec ossuary fills 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.
Still, the pyramids are huge. Throughout the world, throughout history, pyramids have 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.
An eight-armed chandelier of bones blossoms in the center of the room, as fragile and delicate as lace. Jawbones strung end-to-end form loops like links of chain. The gentle slats of shoulder blades fan out to form platters, which support skulls. The intricate architecture of tailbones provides a repeating motif. It doesn’t feel sacrilegious. In fact, the overwhelming mood of the place is contemplative.
Below the chandelier rise 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.
Beyond the obelisks opens an alcove with a crucifix. The pallid Christ drooping there seems drained of blood. His head lolls forward, devoid of will. His mouth hangs slack. It dawned on me that this Christ was dead. 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. 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 18th century, everyone went to the grave to rest until the end of time and the final judgment.
The chandelier hangs maybe seven feet overhead: low enough that it seems you could jump up and make it swing. Candleholders perch atop the skulls, but no trace of wax mars their perfect round blankness. The Cadogan City Guide to Prague says that, until the 1990s, the church used to light candles in the chandelier on November 2, All Souls’ Day, 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” and discontinued them. Services may still sometimes be held in the chapel.
Cemetery of the Week #5 — Hollywood Forever — is hosting its 12th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration today from noon to midnight.
The heart of the festivities is represented by the altars to the beloved dead, which compete for several thousand dollars. The celebration also includes Mayan and Aztec rituals, dancing, a procession, a costume contest, and face painting for the kids.
Among those buried at Hollywood Forever are Peter Lorre, Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power, Mel Blanc (whose headstone reads, “That’s all Folks!”), director John Huston, and many others from the fledgling film industry. More recently, they’ve been joined by Rozz Williams, Dee Dee Ramone, Yma Sumac, Darrin McGavin (TheNight Stalker), and Fay Wray.
Founded in 1899, Hollywood Forever is a 64-acre park in the heart of Hollywood, truly unlike any other cemetery in the world. You can join Hollywood Forever’s Facebook friends here.
San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the current home of 37 exquisite tomb sculptures on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. I had the joy of visiting them recently.
The image above shows my favorite of the mourning sculptures, but it implies that the figures are large, perhaps even life-size. In reality, they stand about 16 inches high. At first I thought this diminished their power, but on closer examination, that was certainly not the case.
The figures, all men, display every nuance of grief, from throwing their heads back in pain to drying their eyes on their cloaks. Some still wear the enamel which once adorned them all, but most have lost their paint. The alabaster retains — in crisp relief — every curl of hair, every fold of fabric, every vein that crawls the back of a miniature hand. Many of the figures carry books, sometimes turning to them for solace, other times bearing them as burdens. The books, like the men, vary in many wonderful details.
The figures come from the tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages. His domain stretched from Dijon in central France into Luxembourg, Belgium, and even the Netherlands. He was also a patron of the arts, drawing sculptors, writers, musicians, and other artists to his court.
Before John died in 1419, he commissioned a tomb for himself and his wife to stand in the family’s monastic charterhouse outside of Dijon. Life-sized effigies of John and Margaret rested on a slab of black marble. Below that slab stood an ornate Gothic arcade through which the mourning figures marched in procession. They were carved between 1443 and 1456 or 1457.
While echoing the relief carvings of mourning figures on classical sarcophagi, these figures were unusual because of their three-dimensionality. They mourned John through the centuries until the tomb was dismantled during the French Revolution. Eventually the tomb was moved to the former ducal palace, now the Fine Arts Museum of Dijon.
While that museum undergoes renovation, the Mourners are touring the US. After the exhibition closes in San Francisco, it travels to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and then to Paris, before returning home.
You really should see the Mourners in person, but if that’s out of the question, the exhibition guide contains photos of each figure from several angles so you the sense of moving around them. Once they return to Dijon, you will no longer be able to get so close or see them as well as you can now.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.