(See the full Sedlec Bone Church photo gallery)
Many travelers know of a place in the Czech Republic called “The Bone Church.” While it is often said to be in Kutna Hora, it is actually in Sedlec, a small town that has merged into the edge of the slightly larger town of Kutna Hora. When I first visited here back in 1999, it was an off-the-beaten-path sort of quirky stop. Now it has become a common day trip from Prague.
Kutna Hora is listed with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for the Church of St Barbara and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec and these are worthy the trip alone. But the unlikely show-stealer is often the macabre but fascinating “Bone Church.”
In fact, the Bone Church is the Kostnice or Charnel House of Sedlec. Sedlec is technically its own little community but abuts the slightly larger town of Kutna Hora which has its own local train station making it an easy hour ride from Prague.
This little Catholic church is surrounded by a cemetery. Inside is what ought to be under all the headstones. The total number of bodies stored down here is said to be more than 40,000 which is perhaps a tenth of how many warm bodies pass through here in a single year. What’s behind all this?
Just down the road about 200 meters is a former Cistercian monastery and its conjoined Philip Morris Tobacco Museum (and factory). Founded in 1158 it is the first monastery of that particular order to be built in Bohemia. In 1278 the abbot headed to the Holy Land and came back with a bit of holy souvenir: some soil from Golgotha or Skull Place (modern tradition has it that this is the same site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is). This is where Jesus was said to be crucified. The soil was sprinkled in the abbey’s cemetery instantly making it a sort of pilgrimage site for the deceased: Everyone wanted to be buried there.
But cemetery space was at a premium and so the graves were recycled, you might say. (see a photo here of the first eco-coffin at the Melk Abbey along the Danube River. Not a big hit with the locals.) Bodies were dug up and bones were moved to the Sedlec ossuary (charnel house). Bones were piling up, quite literally, (40,000 dead, right?) and someone with a bit of power took notice.
The Schwarzenbergs, originally a Franconian artistocratic family which married into a lot of landholdings in Bohemia, commissioned a local wood carver, František Rint, to tidy up the place a bit out of respect for the dead. I don’t know how his woodcarving was, but his bone arranging surely had some inspiration.
There are four giant mounds of skulls and other bones in the corners of the chapel, each topped by a metal crown. In the fashion that others use to string popcorn for their Christmas trees, Rint strung skulls along the ceiling. He fashioned the Schwarzenberg’s coat of arms. He even signed his name in bones.
But the centerpiece is the chandelier of the dead. It is said to contain every bone in the human body. I’m betting at least the stapes was overlooked, but who knows? He certainly was thorough. And major plague outbreaks in the middle of the 14th century and some wars thereafter kept business booming for the cemetery.
If you are visiting Prague, Kutna Hora, Sedlec and the Ossuary are definitely worth a day trip.
When you arrive in Kutna Hora main station (Kutna Hora hlavní nádraží), look for the nice modern local train over on Track 1 closest to the station. Announcements are also in English. Take this to the next stop Kutna Hora-Sedlec to get off closer to the Bone Church and take local buses from that station. Or you can just walk from the main station – it is about 15 minutes on level sidewalks. There is left luggage storage at Kutna Hora main station.
Sedlec Ossuary / “The Bone Church”
Zámecká, 284 03 Kutná Hora-Sedlec, Czech Republic
+420 326 551 049
Open daily (except December 24-25):
April-September 8am-6pm (open at 9am Sunday)
March and October 9am-5pm
Tickets are 90 koruna for adults, but if you plan to see the other sites in Kutna Hora, you have discounts by buying a ticket for some or all of them together. Students 26 years old or younger pay 60 koruna.