Lovely Bones: Visiting the Sedlec Ossuary (Church of Bones)
Are you into unique and unforgettable travel experiences? Do you spook easily? If you said “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second, Sedlec Ossuary might be the destination for you. Just be warned: you will be greeted with open arms.
Thousands of them, in fact.
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Located around 70 km from Prague in the Czech Republic, Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice Ossuary Beinhaus, to be exact) is known to the connoisseurs of the macabre as the Church of Bones. Nearly 40,000 skeletons have been used to create ornamental and religious art that either celebrates or trivializes death, depending on who you ask.
● A huge chandelier made from nearly every bone found in the human body
● A family crest consisting entirely of bones
● Six towering bone pyramids
● Skull candleholders
● Elaborate bone chalices and candelabras
● Bone “chains” that hang throughout the ossuary like streamers at a New Year’s Eve gala
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Although the ossuary makes the concept of resting in peace look more like resting in pieces, the atmosphere is both solemn and spiritual. In fact, when many of the people whose bones now make up the decor were alive, they demanded to be interred in the chapel. The cemetery part, at least.
Sedlec Ossuary was established in the 13th century, when Henry Heidenrich, the abbot of the Sedlec Monastery, returned from a visit to the Holy Land. One of his stops had been Golgotha (the site of Christ’s crucifixion), where he collected a handful of soil. When Heidenrich scattered the sacred dirt across the monastery’s adjoining cemetery, it suddenly become the burial site de jour.
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In what may or may not have a bit of sneaky Middle Ages PR, a legend arose that anyone buried here would decompose in only three days. That was apparently a huge selling point, as no one was keen on undergoing, as the ossuary’s literature phrases it, “the lengthy process of gradual decomposition.” Everyone in Central Europe wanted a plot in holy soil where dust became dust a whole lot faster. By 1318, 30,000 skeletons occupied the Sedlec cemetery.
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The chapel became an ossuary around this time, but the Hussite Wars broke quite a few bones in 1421. In 1511, much of the graveyard was decommissioned and the silent occupants were piled in and around the ossuary. By the early 1700s, when celebrated architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl was engaged to restore the ossuary, tens of thousands of skeletons had taken up permanent residency.
Availing himself of the loose bones lying around, Santini-Aichl built six gigantic pyramids and topped them with elaborate gold crowns. In 1870 the Schwarzenberg family of Orik, who purchased the property in 1783 after the Sedlec monastery was demolished, hired woodcarver František Rint to complete what his predecessor started.
Rint, as it turned out, had quite an imagination. After bleaching all the bones to make their colour uniform, he created the ossuary’s dramatic chandelier and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which includes a raven pecking at a Turkish soldier’s severed head. Even his artist’s signature, which he applied to the wall, is made entirely of bone.
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Today, the Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most-visited places in the Czech Republic, attracting over 200,000 visitors every year. Walking through the “Church of Bones,” it’s impossible to not be chilled and fascinated. Fragments of human skeletons are everywhere, styled into jaw-dropping formations. In addition to the showpiece chandelier and coat of arms, the dearly departed have been used to create crucifixes, candelabras, and even elaborate garlands over entranceways.