Tag Archives: Czech cemeteries

Death’s Garden: So Shall You Be

loren-mason-kutna-horaI 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.

kutna-hora-chandelierAt 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.

rhoads-steering-wheelIn 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.

bone chalice

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:

Memento Mori

The Empire of Death

Skulls and Skeletons


Death's Garden001About 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.

Cemetery of the Week #128: National Cemetery of Terezin

The Star of David over the graveyard at Terezin.

The Star of David over the graveyard at Terezin.

National Cemetery of Terezin
Národní Hrbitov v Terezíne
Terezin, Czech Republic
Dedicated: September 16, 1945
Number of graves: 2386
Number of interments: About 10,000. Only 1133 bodies buried here could be identified.
Open: The Small Fortress is open daily November to March from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and from April to October from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: A ticket to enter both the Ghetto Museum and Small Fortress costs 200Kc for adults, 150Kc for children. For more information or reservations for guided tours, call tel. 416-782-225 or go to the Terezin Memorial page.

About an hour outside of Prague stands Terezin, formerly a garrison town built by Emperor Joseph II in the 1790s. Gavrilo Princip was held at the Small Fortress after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, setting off World War I. During World War II, the Nazis converted the town of Terezin — which they called Theresienstandt — into a Jewish ghetto. They used the nearby fortress as a concentration camp.

During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the villagers of Terezin were evicted from their homes so that Hitler could turn the entire town into a Jewish ghetto. The Nazis called Terezin Hitler’s gift to the Jews, in an attempt to refute the world’s suspicion that Germany had Jewish blood on its hands. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union were herded into the village, where the Gestapo demanded they “govern” themselves. The town council, elected by the Nazis, was forced to draw up lists—to fulfill Nazi quotas—of Jews to be sent over the border into Poland to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 1944, the Danish Red Cross visited the ghetto. They pronounced Theresienstadt a model for the care of political prisoners. As they toured, a jazz band (called The Ghetto Swingers) played a catchy tune. Shop windows displayed formal wear. Everyone ate at an outdoor cantina. Money filled the bank. Prisoners wore street clothes, rather than striped uniforms. Everyone had shoes and hats and overcoats. Behind the façade lay reality, which the Red Cross did not examine. Over 85% percent of the 140,000 people who passed through Terezin died. Three hundred inmates died each day from “natural causes.” Trains carried 87,000 people o Auschwitz-Birkenau. Barely 4,000 “citizens” of Terezin survived the war.

Coffins after the war, awaiting burial.

Coffins after the war, awaiting burial.

Down the road at the Little Fortress, conditions were even worse. Of the 32,000 people imprisoned in the Little Fortress during the war, 2500 died of their mistreatment. Another 5,000 were sent on to die in the extermination camps. After the Soviets liberated the rest in May 1945, 500 more former prisoners died of malnutrition and typhoid.

Inside the Little Fortress stands a tunnel that served as a mortuary, where corpses of tortured prisoners piled up until survivors could transport them to the nearby crematorium. During the last three years of the war, the crematorium’s four trolley-fed ovens burned night and day, disposing of 30,000 bodies from the Fortress, the ghetto, and Flossenbürg work camp over the border in Bavaria. We saw the wall where firing squads executed prisoners. 601 of their victims had been buried in shallow graves until after the war, when they were exhumed and reburied with ceremony outside the Fortress’s front gate.

After the war, all the graves were marked with little wooden crosses.

After the war, all the graves were marked with little wooden crosses.

The Národní Hrbitov v Terezíne, the National Cemetery of Terezin, was designed to honor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. Immediately after the war, at the prodding of survivors, the vicinity of the prison was excavated to recover all the bodies. Gradually, between 1945 and 1958, some 10,000 victims from the Small Fortress, the ghetto of Terezin, and Flossenbürg work camp were reburied in the National Cemetery. Of those, fewer than 1200 lie in individual, named graves. The rest remain nameless. Perhaps one day genetic testing will discover who they were, if they have any relatives left with which to compare them.

A tall cross with a ring of barbed wire at the intersection of its arms towers above the graves. It was erected in 1992. In response, a smaller Star of David was raised closer to the prison wall in 1995. More poignant to me were the uncountable stones marked only by numbers of victims in the mass graves below my feet. Not even the years of death could be guessed or recorded. A low granite tablet with the number 10 000 remembered those who vanished into the crematorium.

From the Czech guidebook to the cemetery, a view of the graveyard from the road.

From the Czech guidebook to the cemetery, a view of the graveyard from the road.

It’s possible to take a local bus out of Prague to Terezin and walk from the modern town back to the Small Fortress. That’s much cheaper than taking a guided tour, but I was so exhausted by the stories we heard on our tour that I was glad to collapse into our air-conditioned coach and not have to worry about getting myself back to Prague. Your mileage may vary.

Useful links:

Numbers of people buried in each section of the graveyard

A reading list on Terezin

A bus tour to Terezin

Frommer has driving directions and more touring suggestions.

Trailer for the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, about Alice Herz Sommer, the world’s oldest living survivor of the Holocaust, who died earlier this year.  She was interned in the ghetto at Terezin and survived by playing in the orchestra. The Nazis ordered them to play as the trains were being loaded to take people to the extermination camps.

Other Czech cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora

Cemetery of the Week #39: The New Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #59: Vysehrad Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #59: Vysehrad Cemetery

In Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague

Vyšehradsky Hrbitov
11 V Pevnosti, Prague 128 00, Czech Republic
Telephone: +420 2 4141 0348
Founded: 1869, in its present incarnation
Number of interments: Approximately 650
Open: May-September from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., until 5 p.m. from November to February, and until 6 p.m. in March, April, and October

Warning: I’ve found three different addresses for the cemetery, so I’m going with the address I found more than once. When I visited the cemetery, I simply got off at the Vysehrad metro station and climbed the hill past the Exhition Hall. You’ll find the graveyard, trust me.

Vysehrad means high castle. The rocky promontory that carries the name was the site of the original wooden castle in Prague, built around the 10th century. Though no trace of that castle remains, Let’s Go calls the area the Czech Republic’s most revered landmark. It is the site where a vision caused Princess Libuse to point to the forest across the river and direct a castle called Praha to be built. She prophesied Prague would become a rich and powerful center of trade. For centuries, the city set about making the dream come true.

Founded in 1869 on the site of a small parish cemetery that no longer exists, Vysehrad Cemetery was conceived at that time as a shrine to the heroes of the Czech Nationalist Revival. It contains graves of more than 600 important Czechs, including Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha, composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, poet Jan Neruda, and playwright Karel Capek, who coined the term robot.

A neo-Renaissance arcade rings the cemetery. Under its covered passageway, curving gothic arches delineate one burial plot from the next. Baroque ironwork fences enclose some of the graves. Others display elaborate mosaics, depicting a rain of gold-leaf stars on a cobalt glass background, or a caparisoned knight like something out of Rackham’s King Arthur. In my favorite memorial, a ceramic blue-garbed angel in low relief leaned against a starburst mosaic of shades of gold and silver. My photograph doesn’t do justice to the breathtaking shimmer of those tiles.

Beneath the cloister hunched a marble sarcophagus carved with a gruesome skull. A pair of snakes wove in and out of unnatural openings in the bones, then twined together across the brow to form a diadem. The visceral reference to death startled me. On retrospect, it seemed a logical extension of the exquisite real bone artwork of the Kutná Hora ossuary.

Dvorak’s bust

After all these artistic pyrotechnics, Dvorak’s grave seemed less magnificent than I expected. A life-sized bronze bust scowled out from beneath the vaulted arcade. The composer looked as if he concentrated too hard on art to enjoy life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bust was made by the sculptor of the Jan Hus monument in Old Town Square.

The Cadogan City Guide to Prague calls Vysehrad Cemetery “an impressive gallery of modern Czech sculpture.” Monuments in Vysehrad span from Art Nouveau to Cubism. I’m not generally a fan of blocky modern art, but I was touched by the Taub monument with its two sturdy, faceless figures supporting each other in their grief. In contrast stood a monument whose family name I didn’t note, so captivated was I by the life-sized sculpture of the robed woman bowing forward as if to drop her tears onto the grave. A bearded man draped in a toga or a blanket clasped her hand. Their sadness was as evocative as the rough Cubist figures.

Toward the middle of the burial ground, a trio of graves encapsulated the breadth of artwork offered in Vysehrad Cemetery. First, a high relief bust of a woman gazed out of a marble archway as naturalistically as if the stone imprisoned her. Beside her, an art deco bronze of a woman with flowing hair rested her chin against her forearm across the top of the pink granite monument. Third in line, a high-gloss black granite stone had a gray granite mask inset. Grief distorted the face of the mask, its eyes squinted shut and mouth gaping around a moan. The same gilt that picked out the letters of the deceased’s name highlighted the mask’s eyebrows.

The Slavin Pantheon

The centerpiece of the cemetery is the towering Slavin Pantheon (after which the cemetery is sometimes mistakenly called) designed by Antonin Wiehl and completed in 1894. Slavin translates loosely to Hall of Fame. The community mausoleum, topped with an angel laying a palm frond on a sarcophagus, is the final resting place of over 50 Czech artists and sculptors, including Alfons Mucha. Even though she stood a long way from any road, black soot stained the poor angel.

Smetana’s monument,
with the Church of Saints Peter & Paul in the background.

The grave of composer Smetana is still remembered and visited. The annual Prague Spring festival starts here on his birthday (May 12), then proceeds to the Municipal House in town. Here’s an article about this year’s festival.

Useful links:
Lovely photos of Vysehrad Cemetery

Lonely Planet listing with alternate address

Other historical sites near Vysehrad Cemetery

Other Prague cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #39: the New Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #39: the New Jewish Cemetery of Prague

View of the New Jewish Cemetery

Novy Zidovsky Hrbitov
Vinohradská at Jana Zelivského
Vinohrady, Prague, Bohemia, 120 00, Czech Republic
Telephone: I’ve found 3 on the internet, all of them different.
Established: 1890
Size: 25 acres
Number of burials: 15,000 under more than 5000 stones.
Open: October to March: Sunday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 2. April to September: Sunday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 2.

Entrance to the New Jewish Cemetery

Complete with ornate wrought iron doors and a gilded legend in Hebrew, the gate of the Novy Zidovsky Hrbitov — the New Jewish Cemetery — towers above the street directly across from the Zelivského metro station. Even though it was founded in 1890, the graveyard is called the New Jewish Cemetery to distinguish it from the jumbled old burial ground of Prague’s historic Jewish Quarter.

The earliest known Jewish community in this area of town was settled around 1888. There are other non-Jewish cemeteries in the area, so it’s possible this land is too stony to farm. The Jewish cemetery was established in 1890 and continues to serve the community. It survived WWII intact, but now contains many markers that remember people who went into the concentration camps and never returned.

As my husband Mason and I entered the gateway and tried to get our bearings, an old man bustled out of the cemetery office. He spoke rapidly in Czech. We didn’t understand a word until he held out a blue crocheted yarmulke for Mason. Men must cover their heads, we understood, to show respect. My research indicates that these yarmulkes are for sale, but we didn’t understand that. Mason returned it to the office when we left.

We wandered the path along the outer wall. Most of the monuments had been carved from polished black granite, their incised letters picked out in gold. Between the stones, shiny dark green ivy crawled up the tree trunks and flowed over the ground. Late October painted the oak leaves bright yellow. They drifted across the pathways, ankle-deep. Mason claimed this was the most beautiful graveyard we’d ever visited.

Kafka’s grave

The most famous of the graveyard’s denizens is easy to find, thanks to good signage. Franz Kafka’s monument was a top-heavy six-sided obelisk made of pink-and-gray granite. He died in 1924 of tuberculosis, in agony from his hemorrhaging lungs. All of his novels remained incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death, so only a few friends mourned him. When Mason and I visited his grave 75 years later, floral tributes surrounded the geometric obelisk.

It seemed odd to stand at Kafka’s grave in the sunshine, with the gilded leaves around us. Somehow I’d pictured Kafka’s world as shadowy, gray as a black-and-white movie. I hoped he could feel the sunshine, wherever he was.

The Cadogan City Guide to Prague forewarned us that Kafka shared his grave with his mother and hated father. In fact, he predeceased them both. He’s commemorated as Dr. Franz Kafka, in deference to his law degree. An inscription on a marble plaque at the base of the monument remembered his three sisters, who vanished into the Nazi death camps.

I haven’t been able to track down a lot of information about the cemetery and its residents, but we spent a lovely afternoon there.

Useful links:

Map to the New Jewish Cemetery

Useful information about the Jewish cemeteries of Prague

Other cemeteries in the Czech Republic on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora

Cemetery of the Week #59: Vysehrad Cemetery

The Ossuary as Memento Mori

Memento MoriMemento Mori by Bohdan Chlibec

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Sedlec Ossuary

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