Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about Sedlec Ossuary – or, as it’s better known – Prague’s ‘Bone Church’; but I did know I wanted to visit it.
History of Sedlec Ossuary
The history of the ossuary is fascinating. In 1278, the abbot of the monastery went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing back a handful of earth from Golgotha – the site where Christ was crucified (interestingly, Golgotha translates to ‘place of the skull’). The abbot consecrated his cemetery with the soil, and its fame quickly grew when wealthy people requested burial in its holy land.
Tragically, plague and war marked the 14th and 15th centuries, resulting in thousands of deaths. Many of these bodies entered their final resting place at Sedlec. By 1511, a huge project began in order to rehouse the bones. A half-blind monk had the task of stacking the bones that were exhumed from the earth. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 skeletons on the site. What a frightful job that must have been!
However, it wasn’t until 1870 when the Schwarzenberg family commissioned František Rint to re-arrange the bones that Sedlec Ossuary took on its most macabre guise. It is Rint’s work that is displayed in the ossuary today.
Amongst the bony décor, visitors to the ossuary can see the Schwarzenberg Coat of Arms, Rint’s signature written in bones, and a chandelier that uses every bone in the human body; although the chandelier is currently removed for maintenance. You can also see ‘bunting’ made from human skulls strung across the ceilings.
Walking around the ossuary should be more eerie than it actually is, but perhaps that’s because the place is full of camera-toting tourists. In the day it feels harmless, but I don’t think I would like to spend a night alone amongst the grinning skulls. I wonder how people would feel to know that their bones are on display hundreds of years after their death. Many of them requested to spend their eternal rest in hallowed ground, but this seems to be the opposite of their wishes.
Should the dead be eternally respected? Or, as time goes on and we pass out of remembrance does it even matter? Displaying bones as historical artefacts in a museum is one thing, but exhibiting them purely for art is another. We know nothing about the skeletons at Sedlec.
There are no names, no stories, and no lessons to learn.
With this lack of knowledge comes a startling lack of emotion. There is no sense of tragedy looking at these remains, no sense of injustice, not even a sense of fear, just an insight into what death looks like and a simple reminder that death is part of life.
There is nothing special about the dead – we will all get there in the end. Visiting the ossuary reminded me of this poem (and its variants) sometimes found on gravestones:
Remember me as you go by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so shall you be,
prepare yourself to follow me.
I don’t know about you, but for me there’s no better reminder to live life to the fullest.
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Would you visit an ossuary, or does the thought of it frighten you? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post. Please leave a comment below.
Thanks for sharing!