Photo Essay: The Unforgettable Sedlec Ossuary

“This place gives me the creeps,” said the American tourist next to me. “It’s so ghoulish. Don’t you agree?”

Let’s just say I didn’t. The Sedlec Ossuary, situated an hour’s train ride from Prague in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kutna Hora, was one of my main reasons for visiting the Czech Republic. This is the world-famous resting place for some 40,000 bodies, arranged artistically by a wood carver, at the orders of a local family back in 1870.

As with the view of the American tourist I met, many people see the Sedlec Ossuary as something of a macabre spectacle, almost a ghoulish challenge to be put to visitors, testing how much death they can handle in one go. Yet I saw it as a peaceful place, where mortality was confronted and became something strangely beautiful.

It was clear that the wood carver, Frantisek Rint, had a respect for the bodies and wanted to create something vibrant that would be remembered. You can decide for yourself whether it’s disturbing or celebratory…

Sedlec Ossuary Large Skull
Getting close to some of the subjects in the ossuary’s entrance.
Sedlec Ossuary Ceiling 2
Spot the cherub in this ensemble.
Sedlec Ossuary Cherubs
Serious artistry on the ceiling.
Sedlec Ossuary Portrait
Right inside the ossuary, getting a sense of the space underneath the church.

I got the feeling that many of the visitors were ticking off this attraction on a big list, and weren’t very keen to delve into the history of the place, but the collective intake of breath every time a new groups of tourists walked in was proof that this was definitely not an everyday kind of sight.

Sedlec Ossuary Bone Piles
Neatly stacked bones and skulls sitting patiently.
Sedlec Ossuary Coat of Arms
The coat of arms of the local family who commissioned the ossuary’s work.
Sedlec Ossuary Crown
Peering inside a pyramid of bones with a crown on top.
Sedlec Ossuary Skulls
Looking at the skulls as individuals

One thing I did find strange was the conflict between the serious tone of the ossuary’s signage, asking for people to behave appropriately and with respect, against the brightly coloured souvenir t-shirts displayed just metres away. There was no mistaking the commercial drive that lurked behind the friendly welcome.

Sedlec Ossuary Skulls and Coins
On full display for visitors – note the coins thrown in to bring luck.
Sedlec Ossuary Coins
More offerings left for the dead.
Sedlec Ossuary Ceiling
Another glimpse of that incredible vaulted ceiling.
Sedlec Ossuary Bone Writing
Frantisek Rint’s name spelt out in bones.

Another thought struck me as I saw the signature (in bones, naturally) of the wood carver as I walked up the steps towards the outside world – the Sedlec Ossuary is clearly of its time. Whilst I can’t speak for the social attitude to death in 1870s Bohemia (though not for want of trying to research it), what you see in these photos definitely taps into the Victorian-era obsession with all things Gothic and morbid that took hold in Britain.

Sedlec Ossuary Skulls in Cabinet
Different states of preservation shown with these examples.
Sedlec Ossuary Visitors
One skull looks on as visitors stare up at the chandelier.

The strange thing is that, even in 21st century society, we consider ourselves to be so advanced and cultured, yet we seem to be less in touch with death than ever before. When we die we’ll probably leave thousands of digital photos, a few social media accounts and countless material possessions that seemed important when we were alive, but we don’t confront death in the way that Frantisek Rint was doing in 1870.

We talk in euphemisms (“She’s passed away,” or “We lost him,”) and we dread the legal jargon of sorting out our wills. We don’t want to think about gravestones or bones or, horror of horrors, the weirdness of embalming fluid and open coffins, and we don’t really discuss death with other people, unless we’re making polite conversation at a wake.

Perhaps the Sedlec Ossuary should be more like a point of contemplation for visitors, and not a garish sight to be slagged off on Trip Advisor. I’d urge anyone who gets the chance to go there to think of it as a privilege, then use that time in the grounds to really reflect on how they’re going to make their life count, or what they want to be remembered for. Because we’re all going to end up as just another pile of bones, but some of us get to be the centrepiece of the corporeal chandelier.

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