A Bone-Chilling Birthday: My Pilgrimage to Sedlec Ossuary

In the spirit of Halloween, what better time than to reminisce on one of the spookiest places I’ve visited? I’ve made frequent mention of my day trip to Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czechia, and even wrote a blog post last year. I decided to give it a re-write for my Travel Writing Course that I took this past winter. After careful editing and valuable feedback from my instructor and peers, I’m excited to finally share this with you. Happy Halloween at Home! (P.S. it’s not my birthday!)

I approach the altar and gaze upwards at the chandelier hanging over my head, ornately decorated with human skulls. Lit candles illuminate their gaping eye sockets and the contours of femurs and hip bones. Mild bursts of sunlight trickle through the back window, contrasting with the underground darkness. 

In the 13th century, thousands of people desired to be buried at Sedlec Ossuary. They attributed its sacredness to Holy Soil from Golgotha – where Jesus was crucified – brought back by a Cistercian abbot and scattered across the cemetery. There are at most 70,000 bones laid to rest here, hence its nickname, “The Bone Church.” I first learned of this macabre place from Atlas Obscura. I got the chance to see it for myself during my stay in Prague.

I listen to the low chattering of my fellow tourists, catching their camera flashes from the corner of my eye. I’m obsessively staring at every skeletal garnish or decoration surrounding me. I’m reminded of those creepy urban legends like the catacombs of Paris that fuel travellers’ curiosities. At Sedlec, I expected to feel a chill behind my shoulders, a thrilling uneasiness of being watched.

Being watched, Sedlec Ossuary

But as hundreds of skulls stare down at me, I find myself peacefully ruminating over life and mortality. I think of my journey here, taking two trains with three Australians and a confused tour guide to this place. To walk beneath a skull garland above my head, like crepe birthday party paper.

It also happens to be my 26th birthday.

We depart our hostel in Prague at 9:30 am for the train station, aiming to reach the town of Kutná Hora and Sedlec Ossuary by 11. I feel my throat drying amidst a hot, mid-September sun during our short walk to the train station. What we hoped was a smooth process turns into aimlessly following our confused guide like cattle. We miss the direct route, and subsequently huddle inside a café, waiting for the noon train. Throughout the journey, my fellow travellers question our guide’s sense of direction as she wistfully sits three rows behind, plugged into her music.

We make our transfer from Kolin and arrive in Kutná Hora at 1 pm. Our own use of Google Maps prevents our guide from leading us astray. I catch a pungent tobacco stench in the air as we cross the bridge into town, undoubtedly from a Phillip Morris factory across the street.

A short distance away lies The Bone Church. Unlike what we expected, its modest exterior bears no skeletal touches. It rests atop a platform accentuated by three round spires and narrow window arches, some boarded up entirely. I notice just how crowded its cemetery is. Once word had spread about Sedlec’s sacredness, the cemetery quickly filled to capacity. Eventually, the remains were moved underground to make room for more.

Entering Sedlec and looking up at the Schwarzenberg crest

We enter through the doors down a flight of stairs into the crypt below. After handing over some Czech korunas, I slowly tread down the steps and through a wide archway towards the nave.  On either sides of the archway, a bone column runs vertically up the corners, in skull-and-cross bone fashion, stacked one-by-one. A bone coat-of-arms sits above the archway’s tip with a skull Crucifix in the centre. It represents the crest of the House of Schwarzenberg, an aristocratic German-Czech family.

My group disperses in all directions, as though our minds couldn’t fathom where to focus. As I walk through the nave, my head swivels and my mouth hangs agape. On both sides lie caged exhibits filled with skull mounds, all facing me. Each mound has a small hole burrowing through the middle like a tunnel, revealing the other side. As I stand in front holding my phone, I feel like Indiana Jones, searching for a Crystal Skull.

A hidden Crystal Skull

The nave opens into the transept, with two smaller corridors on either side. Four skull pyramids arranged in a square occupy the altar space. Visitors can stand right in the middle, directly below the great chandelier that forms a skeletal canopy. With my eyes and camera, I trace every bony decoration aligning the ceiling, all grossly entwined with each other.

For hundreds of years, the skeletal remains at Sedlec Ossuary were hidden underground until 1870 when a local woodcarver and artist named František Rint was appointed by the Schwarzenbergs to artistically rearrange each and every bone. Rint’s own signature also rests on the wall near the entrance.

Sedlec Ossuary, skeletal canopy
Bony chandelier

In this moment, I realize what sets The Bone Church apart from other places that I’ve visited. It’s not the grisly décor but the meaning behind it that makes Sedlec distinct. I entered a giant art exhibit that manifests morbidity in a creative way that both laughs at and peacefully accepts inevitable death. This, ironically, brings life to a seemingly morbid place.

Every skull and bone laid to rest is a physical sign of an individual seeking salvation. A final fulfillment, even in death. Through my own chaotic journey, I can attune to fulfillment in my own sense – a reminder to embrace life and approach its difficulties through light-hearted humour. I even Googled if couples could marry at Sedlec. Someone posted this response: “No, you can’t.”

We depart Kutná Hora at mid-afternoon for the long return journey. Our sun-fatigued selves sit silently throughout the entire train ride. Most of us fall asleep, feeling like Sedlec’s decayed dwellers.

This whole time, I had never told anyone about my birthday. Upon returning to Prague, I decline my group’s invite to join them for dinner.

Instead, I sit alone inside a café, staring eagerly at my slice of chocolate cake. I picture the candles from the bony chandelier, and blowing them out, one-by-one before taking my first bite. Time to celebrate another year gone and many more to come.

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