Having felt like we’d seen almost everything Prague had to offer, we decided to take a drive to the small town of Kutna Hora, located about an hour outside of Prague. There were a few churches there that looked interesting, but there was one in particular I was “dying” to see. We had seen photos online about a “bone church” decorated with 40,000 to 70,000 human skeletons, and we decided to check it out.
The site was originally a cemetery that belonged to a Cistercian monastery that was founded in Sedlec in 1142. In 1278, Henry, the abbot of Sedlec (or head of the monastery), was sent to the Holy Land (Jerusalem) by King Otakar II of Bohemia on a diplomatic mission. Henry returned with a small amount of dirt from Golgotha (or Calvary, the place where Jesus was crucified) which he sprinkled over the ground of the cemetery of the Sedlec Monastery. This linked the cemetery with the Holy Land and made it a sought-after burial place for many of the wealthy in Bohemia and throughout Europe.
The cemetery saw a large influx of inhabitants during the great plague in 1318, when 30,000 bodies were buried there, and during the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century. This resulted in the enlargement of the cemetery and the addition of the Cemetery Church of All Saints. This church, which was later reconstructed in the Czech Baroque style in the early 18th century, features a chapel on the ground floor and a smaller Roman Catholic chapel and ossuary in the basement. This is where it gets interesting!
Ossuaries vary in size and can be a chest, box, building or other. The Sedlec Ossuary has an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 skeletons! Despite seeming disrespectful to the deceased, the use of ossuaries was a fairly common tradition in several religions, especially at places with limited burial space. The departed were typically buried in a temporary grave for one to three years to allow their body to decompose. Next, they were dug up, usually on the anniversary of their death, and their bones were cleaned, perfumed and placed in an ossuary as part of a memorial service. This allowed for the remains of many to be placed in a single tomb, saving space for others to be buried in a similar process.
You’re probably wondering how the skeletons are kept together. The answer is, usually, they’re not. Oftentimes, skulls are kept in one place and longer bones in another. Ironically, the first person to take on this task at the Sedlec Ossuary was a half-blind Cistercian monk around 1511, whose job it was to exhume the skeletons from the graves and stack their bones in the chapel. Legend has it that he regained his sight through this process, which seems like more of a curse than a blessing.
The present arrangement of the bones dates back to 1870 and is the work of a Czech woodcarver named František Rint, who was hired by the Schwarzenberg family to organize the piles of bones. In addition to the four enormous, bell-shaped mounds of bones already in the ossuary, Rint created several unique, macabre displays of bones including columns, a Schwarzenberg coat of arms and a chandelier that hangs from the ceiling and contains at least one of every bone in the human body. He even signed his name on the wall in bones!
Being inside the ossuary and surrounded by human remains surprisingly didn’t feel weird or creepy to me. It was kind of neat to know that all of the skulls in front of me were once people with their own hopes, dreams, fears and lives. If anything, it was a reminder that life is short and we, too, are mortal; and one day, we, too, will be lowered into the ground. So get to living! To see more photos of this incredible arrangement of bones, click here!