Lying an hour away from Prague is Kutna Hora, a small town with a dark, not-so-secret landmark. Most haven’t heard of this place, but those who have will likely be travelling here especially to visit the Sedlec Ossuary, a bone church decorated with the skeletons of over 40,000 bodies.
I find it a strange paradox that we visit such macabre places during our travels, when the subject of death, for me at least, is nothing but the dreaded inevitability that we all face. A destination that’s never spoken of, but one that’s been weighing increasingly heavier on my mind in recent years, like a morbid elephant in the room.
I’m not sure if it’s getting older and wiser, the experience of those around me passing on, or a cruel mix of both, but I find myself thinking about death a lot. I think about how life can simply carry on regardless of who’s been left behind, I worry about not having the opportunity to do what I want before my time is up, and I’m terrified of my time on this complicated planet being cut unexpectedly short.
Why then, is one of my favourite genres of books and documentaries true-crime, and I can spend hours consuming shows and visiting places all about our mortality, while I’m simultaneously terrified of facing death myself?
The Bone Church from Prague
Sedlec Ossuary is an hour train ride away from Prague, and costs 183 CZK (about £6) for a return ticket. From the small Kutna Hora hl.n train station, it’s a short 15-minute walk to the church along the main road. There aren’t any signs along the way, but with the help of my GPS and a few skull-related tourist shops, I can tell that we’re close.
Metal gates open up to Sedlec’s courtyard, where a peaceful cemetery surrounds the small gothic church at its centre. I walk around it quietly, and seeing the fresh flowers on headstones makes feel self-conscious that I’m a tourist on a day trip, and not a family member here to see a lost loved one.
Although there are subtle clues outside – skull and crossbones tiled onto the path outside the church gate, and its shape sits atop the roof spires reflecting the winter sun – the exterior of Sedlec looks unremarkable. But the inside is where it’s hiding its true colours, mainly, crumbling beige walls and a bleached shade of white, human bones.
Pushing open the wooden doors, I’m greeted by chains of crossbones, hung all around the archway above the stairs as if they’re party bunting, and without needing to venture further inside, the grand human bone chandelier could already be seen, displayed at the heart of the church in all its glory.
The inside of Sedlec is small, and descending the stairs leads into a T-shape room that opens to the left and the right. At each corner, piles of skulls and what look like arm and leg bones have been stacked uniformly into a human pyramid, while other body parts have been turned into all sorts of unimaginable shapes that decorate the church’s roof – skulls strung together as garlands, hip plates tied in circles like a fan, and even a giant coat of arms.
The history of how these bones came to be here starts in the 13th century when the Abbot of the monastery returned from Jerusalem with a handful of ‘holy soil’. When people had learnt this earth had been scattered on the Sedlec cemetery, the site became one of the most desirable places to be buried. Very quickly the ossuary ran out of room, and the bodies had to be removed and placed in a crypt in order to allow new ones to be buried. In 1870, a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint was commissioned by the landowners, the Schwarzenberg family, to arrange these bones in the chapel, and it was then that the skeletal art was created. And Rint is clearly proud of his creation, as his signature can still be seen on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, also, of course, made out of bones.
It’s said the Schwarzenberg family wanted the remains to represent the impermanence of life, and the four pillars found in the centre of the chapel stand as an example of that. Cherubs sit at the top of each pillar representing the heavens, while a snake wrapped around a skull rests heavily at the bottom as hell.
Death stares you in the face here, but despite being surrounded by human remains, it feels undeniably peaceful. I walk across the small interior and quieten my voice and footsteps, trying to leave the atmosphere undisturbed while taking in my unique surroundings.
A man stops me by the pillars and asks in a hushed voice if I’ll take his photo. I agree and watch as he stands next to them and poses, trying to hold back the smile that we all automatically do when a camera is held up in front of us. I click the button on his phone a few times then hand it back, and wonder to myself whether this is the place for even a respectful tourist photo.
I start to wonder how the people who were buried here would feel to know that they had been dismembered and decorated in this way, even if their wish was to have Sedlec as their final resting place. I wonder how I would feel if the people I’ve lost were displayed in the same manner, and I wonder if the reason why we’re so comfortable with looking at such things is that we have the luxury of distance.
In the last few years, I’ve had to deal with loss for the first time in my life. I’ve received the painful phone calls to learn that someone was lying in the hospital about to breathe their last breath, the text message to say that they’d passed hours before someone was able to reach their bedside to say goodbye, and heard the break in the voice of someone who’s always been strong, and their tearful silence on the end of the phone line.
I’d never truly contemplated what death really meant until it touched my life, and now I find I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s no longer just a passing thought you express when it happens around you, but now a gut-wrenching feeling that you can relate to all too well.
Distance might make death easier to contemplate, but the only thing in the 5,000 miles between me and those I’ve lost is a feeling of guilt and helplessness. Guilt that I should have tried harder and realised sooner that there isn’t always more time. Guilt that it had long been too late to try to know those I’ve lost and find out how blood is supposedly thicker than water. Guilt that I can’t begin to imagine how much more it would have hurt if we had been close. And guilt that the only thing I could do was to write about it in a blog post.
Maybe death is only easy to face when you’ve not recently experienced loss yourself. Maybe we can visit such places because we had no personal connections to these people. Or maybe we’ve allowed death to be labelled as ‘dark tourism’ and have forgotten about those who mourn them.
We can look at the bleached bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in morbid fascination, but even with distance we cannot forget that they were people. People who had stories, passions, and memories they’ve left behind to their loved ones – and more than just bones hanging on a wall.