by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
“Where are we?” I asked my husband.
“In the Czech Republic” he replied.
“I know that. But right now, where are we?”
“Driving around looking for the Ossuary. See that man standing by that fence. Ask him.” My husband started to slow the motor home.
“You ask him. They never speak English.” I snapped back while rolling down the window. “Excuse me. Do you speak English?”
The man leaned against his bike and gave me a blank look. This argument occurred every few days as we drove around Europe. We should know better than ask people on bikes or donkeys for driving directions. That is even truer when they don’t speak English but we tried anyway.
On this specific day we were looking for the Ossuary or Bone Church in the small town of Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. According to our copy of the Lonely Planet, it is the only tourist attraction in the area and one would think all the residents would know where it is. But no, they don’t. Or they don’t understand my question. Or they are playing with us. Our questions remained unanswered by the somber faces in front of us.
After driving around, looking for signs or something that would direct us in the right way, we finally found someone who spoke a smattering of English. I was reading from the section in the book and said Sedlec instead of Ossuary. A bright light went off in our saviors’ face and he knew exactly where to lead us.
We found the old, very small church built originally in the 12th Century. It held a handful of dirt brought back from the grave of the Lord in Jerusalem and so people from all over Europe came to be buried near that sacred soil. Between wars and rounds of plague, the church yard became too crowded and by 1318 it is thought, that 30,000 bodies were buried. Then the first wave of plague victims came, closely followed by the Hussite Wars. Something had to be done to make room for future bodies. As they dug for the newly dead, old bones would come up and were stacked next to the church. The stacks grew and grew.
In 1551, a half blind monk started piling them into pyramids. In 1709,Jan Santini Aichl began cleaning the bones, using them to form great decorations throughout the basement. There are still four large pyramids of skulls lighted by the large chandelier of bones.
We found a place to park and walked across the small burial ground to the main chapel. I was struck by how small it was, yet is said to hold the bodies of over 70,000 dead. If not the whole body, then the bones of the departed.
We paid a small donation price as we entered the main chapel. Even in the little old room, there are a few side decorations made of bones but nothing to warn the tourist of the size and number downstairs. Steps lead down to the basement area where there is a large room completely decorated with displays of bones arranged in designs. I was expecting it to be creepy but was surprised to see that the large number of every type of bone gave them anonymity. You can’t see any human body in total, just hundreds of separate bones. Mini mountains of skulls and ropes of leg bones take the individual out of the picture. In addition, the bones have all been cleaned and arranged with such care that the new display shouts ‘respect.’ The total volume is overwhelming.
We were to see many more cemeteries during our travels but none with the number of bones. The Ossuary is truly ‘one of a kind.’