Human ‘Bone Church’ in Need of Reconstruction

ossuary

If you think modern-day church building projects are complicated, imagine the job facing archaeologists in the Czech Republic: They plan to clean and preserve the bones of at least 40,000 people that rest below the Sedlec Ossuary church, also known as the Bone Church.

Ordinary-looking on the outside, the Gothic church in the medieval mining town of Kutná Hora features four large pyramids of bones, skull candle holders, a coat of arms made of bone, and a massive chandelier made of every bone from the human body.

How the Bones Ended Up There

According to legend, in 1278 the King of Bohemia sent an abbot from the Sedlec monastery on a pilgrimage to Golgotha. When the abbot returned with what was deemed “holy soil,” Sedlec became one of the region’s most desirable burial sites. Soon afterward, Europe was hit by the plague, resulting in 30,000 more bodies being added to the cemetery. The Crusades of the 15th century added another 10,000. That same century, as the town built its church, bones were exhumed and stacked in pyramids in the basement ossuary.

Fast-forward to 1870, when woodcarver Frantisek Rint was hired to bleach, carve and artfully arrange the human remains. He designed the chandelier centerpiece, as well as chalices, candelabras and crosses—all made from skeletons. The coat of arms honors the aristocratic family that provided funding for Rint’s work.

The Plan to Fortify the Bone Church 

Although a specialist regularly cleans the bones with a toothbrush, the aging process is taking a toll on them. Restoration plans include computer-mapping the pyramids before dismantling them, cleaning each of the bones, and then reconstructing the pyramids. A firm has been hired to oversee the process, which is expected to take two years.

“The bones will be cleansed of surface dirt and then soaked in lime solution,” says conservationist Tomas Kral. “This is a natural method of preservation which was also used during the creation of the pyramids.”

Though ossuaries may seem macabre today, they were once common in Europe among Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith communities. One of the most well-known is the Paris Catacombs.

Every year, more than half a million tourists visit the Sedlec Ossuary, and, as one website quips, they’re welcomed with open arms. “Many people find it weird today and come to see this as some dark spectacle, a house of horrors,” says Radka Krejci, who oversees operations at the church. “But we do not want it to be perceived like that. It is a place of reverence, a burial place.”

The church’s website notes, “You will most likely not find it to be scary but peaceful.” A tourist describing a visit to the ossuary writes, “I’m not often speechless, but I was in there… Though I didn’t feel it is haunted or anything, I did have a weighty feeling that’s hard to explain.”

Interestingly, a death-metal band based in Kansas City named itself Sedlec Ossuary, in honor of the unique building.

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.