Located in a quiet town just a short train ride from Prague is what looks to be a simple, regular church. When you look closer though, you’ll see skull and crossbones on the top, on the walls, in the cemetery and all over. The church basement has literally been the inspiration for horror movies.
We’ve seen some macabre things on our trip, from tombs in ancient Turkish caves to funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges, but the creepiest of them all was the Sedlec Ossuary under the Church of All Saints in Kutna Hora.
The story of the ossuary begins when the cemetery in Kutna Hora became the hottest piece of real estate for the dead in the 13th century. In 1278, the head monk of the nearby monastery was sent to the Holy Land by the king. When he returned, he brought a flower pot filled with dirt from Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Sprinkling the holy dirt around the cemetery made it the most holy place to be buried in the region.
Not only was it popular, but burial places were in high demand due to the Black Death and the Hussite wars. To make room, the lower level of the chapel was converted into an ossuary, or overflow storage for the bones of the dead. Over the years the bones really piled up. Then, in the 1800’s the cemetery and chapel came to be owned by the Schwarzenberg family.
They hired a local woodcarver to “artistically arrange” the bones. His arrangement would be perfectly at home in any movie about serial killers, or other demented monsters.
In fact, Sedlec Ossuary is cited as the inspiration for Dr. Satan’s lair in the Rob Zombie movie House of 1000 Corpses, which is about 39,000 skeletons less than are said to be in the ossuary.
It was also the subject of a 10-minute long documentary commissioned by the Czech government to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the macabre creation. The communist Czech authorities banned the film for subversion and replaced the audio with a brief spoken introduction followed by a jazz arrangement of the poem “How to Draw the Portrait of a Bird.” Considering the jump-cut surrealist original, I’m not sure if that actually helped.
One of the special decorations is the Schwarzenberg family coat of arms, rendered in bone, which features a raven pecking the head of a Turk.
The ceiling of the ossuary is occupied by a chandelier which is said to contain one of every bone in the human body.
The experience of visiting the ossuary is really really creepy. Looking at the skulls made me think how each one was a living breathing person.
To get to Kutna Hora you can take an hour-long local train out of Prague to the main station in Kutna Hora. Once you arrive you can either take a 20-30 minute walk, or a 35 Kroner tourist bus to get there. We decided to go with Sandeman which offers an informative and enjoyable day tour of Kutna Hora, including the “bone church.”