Is your visit to the Czech Republic just a little too upbeat? Do you need a little bit of sobering up (pun intended) after too much partying in Prague? Can’t wait to find the most grisly and gruesome of photos to share on Facebook or your travel blog? Or maybe you’re a philosophical type, seeking a chance to reflect on life and death and human suffering?
Whatever the reason, it’s entirely likely that you may find yourself at the infamous Sedlec Ossuary, better known by its very accurate nickname of the “Bone Church.” Located in the otherwise quaint and charming village of Kutná Hora, about 70 km from Prague, this tiny cathedral is definitely a memorable place to visit because of its use of human bones as decorative pieces. And we’re not talking about the occasional Gothic-style skull-with-a-candle-on-top conversation piece—we’re talking about massive chandeliers made up of at least one of every bone in the human body, piles of femurs and skulls from floor to ceiling, coats of arms designed out of human remains and attached to the wall, and balcony railings stitched together from arms and legs that once served different purposes.
Why? Why, why, why does this place exist? Answering that question requires a trip down history lane, to the 13th century, when the church abbot brought soil from the Holy Land and placed some in the cemetery next door. People beyond accurate counting were killed by the Black Death and the Hussite Wars in the next hundred years, and tens of thousands of them were buried in this holy soil. So many bodies were interred that there simply wasn’t enough space, and they began to pile up and become mixed. Finally, in the 1870s, an artisan named František Rint changed his medium from woodcarving to dead-people-arranging, and created chandeliers, chalices, and intricate scenes out of the bones.
No one knows how many people the bones in the crypt come from, but it’s estimated to be somewhere in the range of 40,000 to 70,000. For such an intimately small place, that concept can be a little bit overwhelming. While the atmosphere isn’t as horrifying or depressing as that at former concentration camps or the Killing Fields in Cambodia (indeed, you may feel a sort of giddy amusement more than revulsion in the ossuary), it is still a sensation that carries some weight with it. The surroundings are absurd, but that doesn’t make the scale of the death on all sides any less real.
So, is it worth a visit? Absolutely. Especially as it’s so easy to reach from Prague, and such a unique place, Kutná Hora should not be missed. Just don’t expect to be the only person there, as Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most visited sites in the entire Czech Republic. Most everyone has heard of the Bone Church by now, but you should make sure that you’re lucky enough to see it yourself.