We board a train on a cold morning in Prague and head off into the Czech countryside to Kutná Hora, a city in the Central Bohemian Region. After a quiet and uneventful train ride we alight on the train platform and set off to discover the gruesome spectacle that hides within the suburbs of this ancient city.
A short bus ride brings us to the sleepy suburb of Sedlec, about two and a half kilometers from the centre of Kutná Hora, where we are directed towards a small and relatively unassuming Roman Catholic chapel. Any concerns that we are in the wrong place are quickly assuaged as we are greeted at the entrance by a giant human skull carved in snow, an oddly light-hearted introduction to the unconventionally macabre experience to come.
The Sedlec Ossuary is a gothic ‘bone church’ built in the 15th century on the site of an old abbey cemetery. This cemetery had proved popular (people were dying to get in there!) thanks to the placement of soil retrieved from Golgotha, the reputed site of Jesus’ crucifixion, by a 13th century abbot on his return from the Holy Land. As word spread, remains were brought from all over Central Europe to be interred in this venerated resting place. With the Black Death ravaging Europe in the 1300s, new ‘residents’ of the cemetery had to be buried in mass graves, due to popular demand. These graves were then uncovered in 1400 when the church was constructed in the centre of the burial site resulting in a lot of bones but nowhere to bury them.
History lesson done, it must be said that the ossuary is a very strange place – we saw something similar at the small Capela Dos Ossos in Alcantarilha, Portugal, but nothing close to the grand scale seen at Sedlec. The bones of some 40,000 people are said to adorn the ossuary, arranged and stacked systematically in some places, intricately designed into chandeliers or family crests in others. Everywhere you look, skulls, femurs and other assorted bones assault the eyeline, to the extent that the gravity of what you are seeing can be, to an extent, lost.
Stalin is reputed to have said ‘One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.’ and watching tourists grin and throw peace signs in front of a chandelier composed of human bones while friends take pictures seems to indicate a certain obliviousness to the fact that those skulls and bones once belonged to a living person. The sheer number of exhibits, however, does numb the soul a little and makes you feel like you’re visiting some sort of grim theme park of morbidity – ‘Grislyland!’
It’s not often that a tourist attraction makes you acutely aware of your own mortality (apart from that one time I rode the rickety rollercoaster at Luna Park in Melbourne) but, in spite of this, the Sedlec Ossuary is well worth a visit should you find yourself the Czech Republic and is a great opportunity to get slightly off the beaten track and away from the throngs in Prague.