The Eerie Bone Church of 40,000 Souls
In a small unassuming Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Czech Republic, lies a remarkable and eerie record of human history – the bones of 40,000 souls adorning and decorating the quiet church, bone chandeliers and chalices, candelabras made from femurs, family crests, monstrances, candleholders, all made from bones.
The chapel has a long history, beginning in 1142 when a Cistercian monastery was founded in Sedlec. One of the tasks of the monks was the cultivation of the grounds around the monastery. In 1278, King Otakar II of Bohemia sent the Abbot of Sedlec Monastery (Abbot Henry) on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Land. When he returned from Jerusalem, he brought back a handful of earth from Golgotha and he scattered the ‘holy soil’ over the cemetery of Sedlec monastery. From then on, it became the most desired place to be buried in the region.
People all over Bohemia and Central Europe, particularly wealthy people, requested that they be buried in the holy cemetery, and many were. A solution was needed to cope with the influx and so in 1511, an ossuary was built to store the skeletal remains. An ossuary is frequently used when burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave and then after some years, the skeletal remains are placed in the crypt or ossuary. This task was given to a half-blind monk who spent his time gathering bones and stacking them to make room for the new bodies coming into the cemetery.
The capacity of the cemetery was to become stretched even further when the Black Plague broke out in the 14 th century and thousands of citizens who succumbed to the disease needed to be promptly buried. Added to this was the Hussite wars in the first quarter of the 15 th century, which led to thousands more deaths. It wasn’t long before the cemetery was literally bursting at the seams. In Sedlec, the bones of tens of thousands of people were moved into the safe storage of the crypt, which became known as Sedlec Ossuary .
In 1870, a local woodcarver, František Rint was employed for the dark task of putting the bone heaps into order. And that he did! Rint spent years assembling the bones, but not into near piles against the walls. Rather, Rint used his artistic talents to create a masterpiece, which is now known as ‘The Church of Bones’. The bones were used as a decoration, and superimposed over the pre-existing structure of the Church made of bricks and stone. He bleached the bones in order to give the room a uniform look and set about forming his creations, including candelabras, altars and coat of arms. But the most impressive piece of art is the central chandelier, which was built with at least one piece of every bone present in the human body.
There are many other examples of ossuaries within Europe such as: the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, Italy; the San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy; the Skull Chapel in Czermna in Lower Silesia, Poland; and Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of bones) in the city of Évora, in Portugal. The more recent Douaumont ossuary in France contains the remains of more than 130,000 French and German soldiers that fell at the Battle of Verdun during World War I.
While many condemn the bone church for encouraging the morbid fascination of tourists, others argue that the church reflects the belief that the physical body is merely a vehicle for the soul, and that once it has passed on, there is no meaning attached to the remaining bones.