Basement of Bones: The Sedlec Ossuary

All photos: Alex Carr

November 15, 2014 — “So what do you think, Frankenstein Castle or the Bone Church?” I asked the question of a friend and colleague as we sat in our hotel in Berlin on a business trip this past October. Just the fact that I can ask a question like that out loud means I have no reason to complain about my life. We had spent the day wandering the German capital and would be there for another week. Since the next day was a free one for us, we decided to stretch out a bit and go on a day trip. Our choices were a ten-hour round trip to the outskirts of Darmstadt, Germany, to see the humble ruins of a castle tenuously rumored to have inspired Mary Shelley’s famous novel or an 8-hour round trip across the border into the Czech Republic to an ossuary decorated with the skulls and bones of the long dead. When we day-trip, we day-trip.

My friend left the answer up to me, but there really was no choice. Six months ago, I put together a list of the ten sites across the world that I wanted to see the most. The Bone Church was Number 7 on that list. It was in no particular order.

The Bone Church’s official name is the Sedlec Ossuary, but its nickname is too evocative a one not to use instead. It sounds like something a giant bearded man in a sleeveless leather jacket and a neck tattooed with Psalm 23 would say to you after you’d accidentally domino’d his gang’s motorcycles in the parking lot, “It’s time to take you to the Bone Church.” It sounds better if you read it out loud while cracking your knuckles.

There were three of us on the trip, and, after renting a car in the early, drizzly hours of what we call Columbus Day in the States and what the Germans merely call Montag, we took off south. Due to the length of the trip, we stuck to the Autobahn and didn’t see anything of, say, Dresden as we passed. We crossed the Czech border without knowing it, only later realizing the signs had changed from one language we didn’t know to another, passed Prague (where we would stop for an hour or so on our return trip), and finally, four or five hours later, arrived at the historic, but small city of Kutna Hora.

We drove straight to the Cemetery Church of All Saints, the Jekyll to the boney Hyde that we had driven hours to see. Construction clogged the area in front of it, but a stone skull and crossbones Jolly-Roger’d atop the wall told us we were in the right spot. After parking on a nearby residential street, we found our way inside the gates.

The church itself was also under construction, but seemed small and relatively unremarkable. The same goes for the cemetery surrounding it. But, in the words of Francesco Dellamorte in Cemetery Man, “It’s got a marvelous ossuary.”

We followed the signs to the ossuary entrance, walked through the doors…and immediately saw bones. And skulls. Lots and lots of bones. And lots and lots of skulls. I was already awe-struck and we had barely crossed the threshold. I felt like I was surrounded by shafts of light amidst choruses of Hallelujahs sung from the supple throats of hundreds of castrati…except that the heavenly approbation was centered on a scene straight out of horror-movie hell.

We were actually in a vestibule at the top of a wide set of stairs looking down into a good bit of the ossuary proper. But there were also bones around us. In niches across from each other were a pair of giant chalices made out of limb bones and skulls and other bones that, well, I guess I should stop here and caveat that I’m terrible at recognizing individual bones. So I’m just going to say bones a lot. It’s a nice, strong word, bones. The niches and doorways were outlined in skulls and bones. More body sticks dangled from the ceiling and formed a cross above the entrance to the ossuary below. I paid my entrance fee without taking my eyes off any of it.

At the bottom of the stairs, it was overwhelming. At first, it felt like lots and lots of empty sockets staring at me. As my inner ear adjusted to the strangeness, I started to realize what I was looking at.

The first thing that struck me about the Sedlec Ossuary is that it’s small. Very small. Like the size of a living room and a dining room together. Like if all the bones reassembled themselves the resulting skeletons wouldn’t fit inside that space (we’re much more stackable as individual pieces). And that’s true, since the remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 people can be found in that small area.

The ceilings were high, though, and windows near that top of the walls (just aboveground outside) actually gave the place an open feel. This ossuary was no dungeon or a house of horror. Just a colorless room full of bones. And skulls. Lots and lots of bones. And lots and lots of skulls.

Standing in the middle of the room, I was surrounded at arm’s length by four thin, conical cases adorned with skulls and bones and topped by cherubs like a clump of demented Christmas trees. Behind me was an altar with a large Christ on a cross…the only thing in the room, it seemed, not made of bones. Farther out, at the four corners of the ossuary and each within a pressure-sensitive cage that alarumed if you touched them, were massive mounds of skulls (and I’m estimating here) 12 feet tall and 25 feet thick at the base. A single, small enigmatic hole penetrated through the center of each as if inside lived an entire colony of carrion creatures.

The mounds looked like strange pyramids from a bloodthirsty civilization we’d yet to discover. Above each pyramid was a large wooden crown, and if you looked closely at the skulls, you could see coins in their sockets where, I assume, people had either made wishes or played carnival games.

Adorning one of the cages was a large coat of arm…bones. Also skulls. And pelvises. Other types of dead calcium. It looked like something a person would get tattooed on their upper arm. Let me rephrase that. It looked like something I’d want tattooed across my entire back. I need to start a GoFundMe.

But the main piece of bone art, the one you always see in photos online (and for good reason), is the sprawling bone chandelier dangling above. This thing is rumored to have every bone in the human body incorporated into it, and large festoons of skulls loop off from it to adorn the whole ceiling. It’s another reason it’s hard to call the place a dungeon. I mean, what dungeon has a chandelier? I assume Satan’s penthouse has one, but that cat has style and his digs ain’t no dungeon. Seeing that thing hanging above my head was an extremely not-in-Kansas moment for me.

So that’s what the Sedlec Ossuary is, but why is it? Monks. Goddamn monks. Those guys love to play with bones. I learned that at the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. The point of all these bone Lego sculptures, at least officially, is that it shows that we’re all equal in the sight of the Lord. You know, Dust-in-the-Wind-type stuff. But far from humbling me, it just gives me image of a mad god atop a throne of skulls, like something Frank Frazetta would paint. But I don’t remember that illustration in my Sunday school books.

However, we can’t just blame/credit the monks on this one. History time.

The church was originally part of a bohemian monastery founded in 1142, although the present church itself wasn’t built until the 14th century. The laminated yellow handout they gave us on entry recounted a legend that the cemetery became popular in the 13th century when an abbot came back from the Holy Land and spread dirt from Golgotha in the cemetery, imbuing it with spiritual properties in the way that only topsoil fed by executed deity blood can.

In the 15th century, the monastery got rid of some land and lost grave space in the process. So, as they do in older cemeteries, they dug up the graves and stuck the bones in the basement, giving us the delightful term ossuary. By the 16th century the bones had been arranged in some kind of monk-like way, although by whom nobody knows. One legend tells of a blind monk who did it and miraculously gained his sight afterward. I assume his first words were, “Shite. Bones?”

But we can credit some relatively modern people for the current state of the ossuary.

In 1870, the building was bought by the Schwarzenberg family, and they had a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint disinfect the bones and, according to the history books, “make the place awesome.” He’s the one who made all the decorations as we seem them today, especially the chandelier and the coat of arms, which is the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. Rint’s name is also spelled in bones on the wall.

When we first arrived at the ossuary, there were maybe half a dozen people there. But this is a major tourist attraction 45 minutes outside of a major tourist city. And quickly it became absolutely crowded with fellow tourists, testing my theories about how many people could fit into the room and giving us plenty of perfect pictures like these:

It was a party among the bones. And as much as I’d have highly preferred solo time in such an ancient, morbid, fascinating place, there’s something to be said for joining throngs of the living pressing up against throngs of the dead…with iPads and phone cameras in selfie mode.

What I love about that is I’m sure, absolutely sure, that those strange hordes of sightless skulls have seen stranger sites over the past centuries—and will see stranger still in the coming ones. Sometimes the oddity is really us.