Tag Archives: Czech cemeteries

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

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice)
Zamecká 127, Kutná Hora – Sedlec, 284 03 Czech Republic
Information Center telephone +420 326 551 049
English email: ic@sedlec.info
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.

Useful links:

Official website of the Ossuary

Video of the Ossuary

An in-depth & well-documented trip to Kutna Hora

A visit to the Ossuary

Map to Kutna Hora

Books about ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

My review of Memento Mori

My review of The Empire of Death

My review of Skulls and Skeletons

Other ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #19: The Paris Municipal Ossuary

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

Czech graveyards as community records

Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish CemeteriesOld Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Arno Parik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arno Parik’s introduction opens with the Talmudic law that the dead are to be guaranteed the eternal inviolability of their graves. When founding these historic cemeteries, Bohemian and Moravian Jews purchased land on a permanent basis, which meant they often paid large sums for ground that was too steep or remote from town to serve any other purpose. Those criteria aided in the preservation of graveyards recorded here, even as the Nazis dismantled the Jewish communities of the surrounding area.

Parik describes the historical burial societies who cared for the dying, arranged funerals, and comforted the bereaved. He details Jewish burial practices. Memorial pebbles, placed on headstones whenever someone visits a grave, are explained as deriving from the duty of wayfarers in antiquity to add a stone to the graves they passed in the desert. I found this part of the book fascinating.

Things go downhill once the photographic section begins. Rather than focus on the artistry of individual gravestones, this book demonstrates how gravestones record community. Photographer Petr Ehl was more interested in documenting graveyards as a whole, rather than selecting special stones on which to focus, which limited his photographs to landscapes rather than the close-ups I prefer. The photos underline the similarities between the graveyards: weathered stones poking up between saplings, slanted stones staggering up steep grassy slopes, crowded stones huddling side by side. Unfortunately, the message of the book — that these graveyards (often the only record of the communities they once served) must be preserved — is undercut by the similarity of their documentation. If all the graveyards look the same, why not save one and let the rest fall to ruin? (Luckily, that question is answered by Arnold Schwartzman’s Graven Images.)

One hopes that this book was more persuasive for the audience for whom it was originally published: the Czechs of the living communities surrounding these graveyards.

Copies sometimes turn up on Amazon: Old Bohemian & Moravian Jewish Cemeteries

View all my reviews

Beautiful gravestone motifs

Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish GravestoneGraven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an indispensable little book this is! It collects 240 full-color photographs of motifs on Jewish gravestones, breaking them down into family symbols, workman’s tools, Talmudic references, etc. Like an encyclopedia, it defines each symbol, gives a reference from the Bible or Jewish lore, and remarks on the differences in symbolism from one community to the next. The artistry of tombstone carvers has never, in my experience with cemetery books, been as completely or as beautifully documented as this.

Inside are gravestones that depict Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, candelabra which were believed to ward off grave robbers, hands feeding the charity box, skeletons with scythes, Jewish cherubim, lions, monkeys, fantastic birds, even a scorpion (which the author can’t explain). The variety is startling and impressive.

My only disappointment with the book is the size of some of the photos. A two-page layout demonstrating the blessing hands motif contains 28 pictures, each less than two inches square!

Throughout the book, the photographs themselves are wonderfully reproduced, even the tiny ones. The printing captured the spectrum of lichen, as well as the ivy and grasses that surround the stones. The stones themselves seem rough enough to touch. The sunshine looks as if it’s warmed the stones. The occasional shadow looks chilly.

Chaim Potok’s foreword explores the second commandment (“No graven images”) and its relationship to the creatures here displayed. He grounds his discussion in passages from the Talmud and Jewish authorities (whom I wish he had named), saying that there was never any consensus on what constituted an image. Perhaps tombstone carvings are permissible because they are in low relief, rather than three-dimensional?

Potok also reviews the history of Jewish grave markers. The first tombstone is mentioned in Genesis, when Jacob places a monument at Rachel’s grave.

Schwartzman uses the centuries of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries to detail the persecution Jews have suffered. Many of the communities recorded on tombstones in this book have ceased to exist. I am glad these beautiful carvings were recorded before they too disappear.

Occasionally you can find copies on Amazon: Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone

View all my reviews

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Rabbi Lowe’s sarcophagus

The Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
Part of the Jewish Museum in Prague
U Staré školy 1
110 00 Prague 1
Telephone: +420 222 749 211
e-mail: officejewishmuseum.cz
Founded: in the first half of the 15th century
Oldest surviving monument: 1439
Size: Approximately 2.5 acres
Number of interments: Perhaps up to 100,000 lie beneath 12,000 tombstones
Open: Every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Winter from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer from 9 a.m. until 6.
Admission: Adults – 200 CZK, under 15s and students – 140 CZK, children under 6 are free.

Jews first came to Prague as free traders in the 10th century. They settled along the trade routes below Vysehrad Castle, where they lived peacefully until Christian Crusaders destroyed their settlement in 1096-1098. Afraid to lose the money generated by the Jewish traders, Prague’s nobility invited them to shift their homes into the city’s Old Town. This area became the first ghetto, three centuries before the word was coined in Venice.

Medieval Christians believed that Jews had killed Christ and continued to use Christian blood in their rituals. The “Passover lamb” was considered a euphemism for Christ and it was widely imagined that unless Jews were locked behind ghetto walls at night, Christian infants would end up on Passover plates.

As the Middle Ages melted into the Renaissance, interest in the Kabbalah swelled amongst both Christians and Jews in Prague. In this atmosphere, Rabbi Loew (pronounced Lurve) became chief rabbi of the ghetto in 1597. History records that he was once summoned to the palace by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who funded research into the alchemical transformation of lead into gold. (This was the same period of time that Queen Elizabeth consulted astrologist John Dee about similar matters. Dee later came to study in Prague, purportedly with Loew.)

Legends sprang up around Rabbi Loew, said to be one of only four men, post-Adam, to see the Garden of Eden. While there, he was granted the shem, the secret name of God, which can create life.

This came in handy when the ghetto was once again menaced. (The menace varies according to the storyteller, though it’s always rooted in Christian bigotry.) The Rabbi and two apprentices created a champion out of the muddy banks of the Vltava River. This artificial man served faithfully, protecting the Jews from slander and worse, until something went wrong one night and Loew had to rip the shem — variously a clay tablet or a scrap of paper — from behind the golem’s teeth.


Founded in 1478, the Beth-Chaim (Hebrew for House of Life) served as the only Jewish graveyard in Prague for three centuries. Penned in by buildings on every side, the Old Jewish Cemetery could only increase in height. 12,000 surviving tombstones totter over the graves of an estimated 20,000-100,000 people. The ground consists of twelve layers of graves.

The most visited of these belongs to Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609). Rather than a tablet marker, Loew has a tomb of pink stone, guarded by lions. When I visited, pebbles, coins, and folded scraps of white paper covered its every flat surface.

I’ve read several explanations of the custom of placing pebbles on graves. The simplest appeared in Mystical Stonescapes by Freema Gottlieb: “Vegetation fades, but stones are as close as matter gets to Eternity.” Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Ehl, Parik, and Fiedler traces the ritual back to when the Hebrews wandered in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt. Anyone who fell during that forty-year trek was buried along the wayside. Travelers who passed those graves added a rock as a way of keeping the burial mound inviolable.

While the Nazis demolished many Jewish graveyards, this one — and Loew’s tomb — was spared as part of a museum dedicated to the extinct race. The beauty of the place must have touched some Nazi soul. Now overseen by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, the graveyard welcomes 10,000 visitors each year. Most bring pebbles in their pockets for Rabbi Loew.

Useful links:

The Jewish Museum of Prague visitor information

The Jewish Cemeteries of Prague

The New Jewish Cemetery of Prague

Rabbi Loew’s grave

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Jewish gravestones:

Old Bohemian and Moravian Graveyards

Graven Images

And it’s featured in: