The answer? You can’t. OK, so maybe it’s a little macabre, and it’s probably not for everyone. I doubt that your average family wants to decorate their lounge room with strings of human skulls, or rob the local cemetery for some bones to make the family coat-of-arms [and I doubt that ‘interior decoration’ will go down too well with the courts as your reason for grave-robbing]. However, if you’re interested in the unusual or are just a generally strange person then this place should not be missed if you’re in Prague.
The Sedlec Ossuary isn’t the only place around where crazy people have put disarticulated skeletons to a more creative use. There are numerous catacombs decorated with skulls and the like around Europe, and I believe there is another church. However, Sedlec is kind of special. To start with, the bones used once belonged to people who had more in common than having once been alive; most the bones belonged to people who died of the plague and were buried in mass graves – common during plague epidemics, when disposing of the dead ASAP was of huge importance.
The story of the ossuary is this:
Back in the days of the Crusades, a Cistercian abbot of the monastery at Sedlec visited the Holy Land and brought back some earth from Golgotha [the local airport Customs weren’t so strict back then] and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. Lo and behold, suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there! The cemetery had to be enlarged, and enlarged again with mass graves of victims of the Black Death in the fourteenth century and a few more during the fifteenth century Hussite Wars. In the sixteenth century, the mass graves were exhumed as they needed space for more recent burials and a chapel was built for use as an ossuary – basically a place to store the bones of the tens of thousands of skeletons unearthed.
In 1870, a local woodcarver was given the task of organising the bones, and decided to use them to decorate the chapel. So the guy spent a fair bit of time cleaning the bones of a massive 40,000 people and making sure that they weren’t going to cause a new Black Death, and then got all creative on their bleached white boniness. He built giant chalices, crowns, a coat of arms, strings of skulls, and – best of all – a chandelier which contains every single bone in the human body.
Sedlec Ossuary is impressive. It’s so impressive that you kind of forget that each skull and every bone once belonged to a living, breathing person, and so fascinating that you forget that you should probably be creeped out by being surrounded by the dead. Or maybe that’s just me.
I found it quite odd that a church would want to decorate a chapel in such a gruesome manner, or to desecrate the dead in such fashion. Then I remembered that it was the great game in the middle ages to collect relics of the saints, and ‘known’ saints were exhumed so that every priest and his dog could take a bit of their arm or a couple of ribs. [Being a little cynical, I’m pretty sure that plenty of random graves were robbed and the bones sold as St. John’s little toe and the like.] So I doubt that the Church would see stringing up garlands of skulls as desecration – unless someone did it today.
Apparently it’s something about reminding man of his own mortality, and at the same time that while his physical body will rot and decay his immortal soul will live forever. I still think that this is a funny way to go about it. I understand the purpose of ossuaries – they’re practical and historically they’re certainly nothing new – and while I may not entirely understand the reasoning for creating chandeliers and coats of arms out of human bones, I can appreciate the guy’s committment to recycling and give him full points for the outcome. And to top it all off, he signed his masterpiece…in bones.
Plus, it sure beat visiting another damn castle!