It may be macabre, but Sedlec Ossuary was at the top of my list for things to visit in and around Prague. My Masters dissertation was on repositories that care for human remains and the guidance that is followed in relation to these remains. This has fuelled an interest in the display of human remains and how they are perceived by the general public. There are an abundance of ossuaries in Europe, in comparison to the two in the UK. This memento mori in Sedlec is particularly spectacular due to the decorative arrangement of the remains.
It’s only a small space under a small chapel, but it holds over 40,000 disarticulated skeletons and is one of Czech Republic’s 12 world heritage sites. Although most of the human remains are piled in a rather morbid form of jenga, some have been arranged to decorate the space; as a large crest of the House of Schwarzenburg and in patterns up the walls. Although there has been a cemetery on this site since the 1200’s, it was Frantisek Rintz, a woodcarver hired in 1870 by the Schwarzenburg family to put the remains in order, who displayed the bones in this manner. There was once a chandelier created from bones, but this has been recently dismantled as it was becoming unstable. It must have been an impressive sight and the wax on the top of a number of skulls suggests that it may have been actually used as a giant sinister chandelier.
On entering you are handed a laminated sheet that explains how the remains got to be there and why they have been displayed in such a manner. You are requested to be respectful, but you are allowed to get photographs. As a memento mori this display of human remains was created to remind those alive that they will die, as such photography could be considered to spread that message.
Apart from the initial information sheet there is limited interpretation. One case contains skulls that have clearly been in some trauma does have a caption indicating that these skulls were in a battle and, the healing on some of the skulls suggests that they survived their injuries at least for a time. Instead of being creepy or sinister the space is in fact peaceful, the crowds that gather at the door become respectfully quiet, speaking in whispers as they descend down the stairs and into the vaulted space.
If you want to see more of Sedlec Ossuary, check out Ryan Gray’s incredible photography of the site here.