As you enter tiny Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic, you may consider crossing yourself and looking over your shoulder. The ossuary is reportably one of the scariest, most haunted places in the world (if you believe sites like Buzzfeed or even CNN and Conde Nast Traveler.) The tiny chapel contains an estimated 40,000 – 70,000 sets of bones: there are garlands made of skulls with arm bones in their teeth; vases crafted from femurs, hip bones and sternums; a chandelier ending in seven skull pendants; and a coat of arms made out of, well, arms.
As with many things ghoulish, in daylight the ossuary is quite fascinating and anything but scary. In fact, its story is a nice one: In 1278 a Czech abbot headed to the Holy Land. Upon his return to the Kingdom of Bohemia he brought with him a small amount of dirt from Calvary, the hill on which Jesus supposably died. The site where he sprinkled this dirt, Sedlec, soon became a destination for pilgrims from all over Europe, with people coming from places as far as France and Belgium to die in the small town so that they would be buried in the holy ground. Adding to their numbers over the years were the dead buried in mass graves from the Black Plague and Hussite Wars. After the building of the non-descript church on the site of the burial plots for these pilgrims and victims of war and disease its crypt was used as an ossuary for the bones recovered during its erection and those later exhumed. With more skeletons than the abbots knew what to do with, you can imagine the floor-to-ceiling piles of bones that must have been in the ossuary, an overflow storage room of sorts. Many years later, in 1870, the powerful Schwarzberg family purchased the chapel and tasked František Rint, a local woodcarver, with the job of sorting through the basement of bones and figuring out what to do with them.
The result is a bit practical, a bit playful and a bit macabre: Rint neatly stacked the majority of the bones in the four vaulted corner of the chapel; the remainder he used for decoration, crafting the crest of the Schwarzberg family out of bones down to the crow pecking out the eye of a defeated Turk, stringing skulls from the ceiling, and fashioning an enormous chandelier that contains every bone in the body.
Despite the reports of hauntings and fright the effect is not horrific. Instead, Rint’s odd whimsy allows us to see a sort of beauty in death, creating something hopeful with what remains on the earth instead of portraying death as scary or sad. While using bones to decorate may be considered disrespectful to the dead by some (especially to those extra-religious early pilgrims who wished to be peacefully buried in holy ground) what can truly be found at Sedlec Ossuary is a place that is not haunting and full of ghosts and ghouls but, rather, is a hauntingly beautiful, artistic reminder of mortality.