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The Bone Church: Journeying Inside the Sedlec Ossuary

40,000 human skeletons. Skull candle holders. A chandelier compromised of every single bone in the human body. No, it’s not an attraction at a sideshow. It’s the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic’s Kutna Hora – a.k.a. a holy church decorated from base to rooftop with thousands upon thousands of human bones.

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When it comes to churches, there’s no shortage of famous sanctuaries. There’s the Sagrada de Familia in Spain, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia, Grundtvig’s Church in Denmark, the Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – but this special little house of God in the Czech Republic puts them all to shame. After all, what could serve as a greater connection to the other realm than the actual bleached and mounted bones of our fallen ancestors? Riddled with atrophied entrails dating back as far as the thirteenth century and arranged in a festive manner that resembles a New Year’s Eve party more than a Sunday sermon, the Sedlec Ossuary is a unique tourist destination.

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After learning of its arguably macabre existence, some may be quick to assume that the nature of this place of worship is more on the morbid side, but this notion couldn’t be further from the truth. The people whose innards lie within the walls of this church were not involved in any deviant behavior. These old bones belong to people who requested that their remains be left there after they died.

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It all goes back to 1142 when a Cistercian monastery was established in the lands nearby. In 1278, Henry the abbot of Sedlec was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Land by King Otakar II of Bohemia. Upon leaving Jerusalem, Henry grabbed a handful of “Holy Soil” from Golgotha, carried it home, and scattered the dirt over the cemetery of the Sedlec Monastery. When people found out what he had done, they began requesting that their bodies be buried there, and the cemetery became very famous all throughout Europe.

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Due to its growing popularity and the high casualty rates from the waves of plague in the fourteenth century and the wars in the fifteenth century, the burial ground had to be enlarged in order to better accommodate its plethora of fresh cadavers. In the fifteenth century, a church was built near the cemetery, and its basement was used as an ossuary, meaning a collecting place for the remains of the recently deceased. The bones remained there for many years, until 1870 when a man named Frantisek Rint was called upon to arrange the bone clad basement into a work of art, and his creation shocked the world.

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Today, if you travel to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and head about 70km outside of the town, you’ll find the Sedlec Ossuary nestled away within the quiet wooden area of Kutna Hora, surrounded by graves. If you wander past the old tombstones and into the basement of the little church, you’ll find one of Europe’s coolest hidden gems. It may just look like your typical medieval gothic house of holiness on the outside (which, honestly, would be reason enough to visit by itself), but inside this simple piece of architecture dwells a bony labyrinth of human carcasses which hold the spirits of those who once were and what we all one day shall be.

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