Public interactions with human remains: Sedlec Ossuary

Margie Jones

I had the privilege of visiting Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago. The ossuary is in Kutna Hora and is known as the ‘bone chapel’ or the ‘chapel of bones.’ Between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals are thought to be on display – all the remains are skeletal. The ossuary has a long history that stretches back as far as the 13th century. An abbot scattered soil from the Holy Land on the site and it became a desirable place to be buried in the region. Thousands of people were buried there before they were moved to a crypt after the cemetery became too full. Many of the deceased were victims of the Black Death or were killed during the Hussite Wars. It was around the 16th century that exhumation of the bones begun.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the so-called macabre art was created from the remains. A local woodcarver called Rint arranged the bones in an artistic manner in 1870, before signing the wall with the bones themselves. Rint bleached the bones and created the famous bone chandelier, a coat of arms, candle holders and large bone pyramids. The resulting artwork attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and even in the short time I was there in the off season I could not help but observe the different reactions to the remains.

I was travelling with a group of archaeologists, who are all well acquainted with skeletal remains but still understand the respect that needs to be shown towards these displays. Upon entering the ossuary, we were told not to take any pictures. This is a recent rule that had to be enforced in January 2020 as many who visited the site were asked to take photos in a respectful manner and did not comply. A press release from the ossuary stated that many were taking derogatory photos, inappropriate selfies and were touching/ manipulating the remains for a picture. Now, you must apply for permission to take photos in the ossuary at least 3 days in advance of your visit with reasons outlining your intentions regarding the distribution of the media.* I was intrigued to see if everyone followed the rules as we entered the chapel.

The reactions to the remains were polarising, even though there was only a small number of visitors at the time we went. One young couple were taking pictures pretty much straight away, with the young woman posing with her hand placed on the bones of the candle holders whilst her partner snapped the image. They were not reprimanded by any staff members as there was not many working there on the day we were there, but it was shocking to see a blatant disregard for the rules straight away. Touching of the bones is forbidden and outlined on the ossuary website. The bones were used as a prop in a picture, exactly how was described in the press realise.

One woman started laughing loudly at the site as she turned to leave, stating ‘this is not for me!’ Another rule outlined on the website is to keep the noise down to show respect for the dead. It was likely this woman was very uncomfortable and didn’t know how to react to the remains. I heard the rest of her group say outside that they weren’t ‘expecting whatever that was!’ and that they expected the bones ‘to have been ground up and used as cement rather than displayed’ (both comments have been edited for clarity). Obviously, the group were not keen on the visit, and did not research the site properly before visiting.

As an archaeologist who studies the dead, it was hard not to cringe at some of the reactions of others at the site, but we must understand that not everyone will grasp the fact that these disarticulated remains were once people and are not objects. The fact that the remains have been arranged in such a manner may make it difficult for those who do not often come in contact with the deceased not to see them as objects, or perhaps become extremely uncomfortable with display. However, we must encourage those who intend to visit the site to research it before hand and become acquainted with the rules – something which evidently didn’t happen on the day we visited. The defleshed body can often leave us far removed from the deceased, as skeletal remains are not something we see every day, but we should always treat them with respect – whether they are arranged in a manner you do not agree with or not.

If you are interested in human remains and studies of death, then I would definitely recommend a visit to the ossuary. You can find the list of regulations in the resource list below – just remember the ‘chandelier’ or ‘candle holders’ were/ are human and should be treated as such.

(*Images used in this blog post were taken by an archaeologist before the ban on photography was introduced.)

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