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How Do You Dismantle a Building Made of Human Remains?

Restorers at the Czech Republic's "bone church" are asking themselves the same question.

Just outside Prague, the once-wealthy silver mining town of Kutná Hora is home to arguably the most morbid tourist attraction in the world. If you’ve ever turned to tumblr to avoid doing the work you’re paid to do, chances are you’ve already come across photos of the Sedlec Ossuary (or “the bone church”), a small Roman Catholic chapel that’s decorated with the bones of an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 victims of both the Black Death and the 15th century Hussite Wars.

The hundreds of thousands of human bones have been arranged in all kinds of creative ways, from bone chalices and chandeliers to strings of skulls and bones hung across the ceiling like history’s most depressing party bunting. It’s the Ted Bundy approach to interior design – the entrance to Disneyland’s Nightmare Before Christmas ride if they’d sourced their raw materials from a morgue rather than a Hollywood prop department.

The basement at Sedlec, where all the bone sculptures are located, is open to the public and has long been one of the most popular tourist spots in the Czech Republic, attracting around 200,000 visitors every year. All kinds of people – from Polish pensioners to fans of “grief tourism” (AKA sociopaths who holiday in Auschwitz and Chernobyl) – come here from all over the world to shoot their new profile pictures next to the piles of 500-year-old human skulls.

Now, though, the 14th-century church building is in serious need of repair. The bones are beginning to crumble and the church leans drunkenly to one side; the owners can’t put the restoration work off any longer.

Of course, this isn't going to be your standard church restoration job. The basement hasn’t changed since 1870, and the grim decorations now have to be taken apart and moved for the first time since they were installed. Nothing like this has been done before, because – to the international authorities’ knowledge, at least – nothing like this has existed before outside the fictitious realm of Rob Zombie movies and hack-and-slash video games. Compounding their problems, the restorers in charge of Sedlec say that no one alive today actually knows how the bones were fixed together in the first place.

After an hour’s train journey from Prague, a walk down Kutná Hora's main road takes you past the bone church’s own dedicated tourist information office, cafe and toilets, and a gift shop featuring an array of plastic skull necklaces, fridge magnets and the most macabre beer cosies I’ve ever seen. There’s apparently almost always a line of international tour buses stationed outside the gates of the church.

None of this kitsch and fanfare helps much while trying to reflect on either my own individual insignificance within the universe, or the inescapable hand of death – which, I’ve read, are the two things the bone church was built to remind us of.

Skulls and crossbones on the spires of the church above the Sedlec Ossuary

Walking towards the church, the first thing you notice – bar the German teenagers in Monster snapbacks taking selfies by the entrance – is that there are skulls and crossbones everywhere, carved in stone on the gates, painted on the pavement outside and even replacing the standard crucifixion-style symbol on top of the spires.

The church has been associated with death for centuries, long before the basement was filled with the skeletal bric-a-brac it is now. The legend goes that after a local monk brought some soil back from the Holy Land in 1278, Central Europe's wealthiest residents started queuing up for family burial plots. Two religious wars and one plague later, this holy ground was full to bursting. To make way for new graves, the older remains were exhumed in 1511 by a half-blind monk, who left them piled up in the church basement.

More than 300 years later, in 1870, the aristocratic Schwarzenberg family – who owned the church at the time – asked a woodcarver to do something with the forgotten bones, and what you see today is what he came up with. František Rint worked for decades to organise and style the remains into decorations, recruiting his wife and kids to help him in perhaps the least family-friendly family business I’ve ever come across.

An engraving on the wall in honour of František Rint

There are rumours that people had already started making things out of the bones before Rint came along, leaving the Schwarzenbergs no option but to pay someone to do it properly. Jana at the ticket desk told me this was probably true. “We know that a man called Santini – and possibly others – was already making bone decorations here in the early 18th century,” she said. “Rint’s work just continued that.”

Regardless of who was there first, the same problem still stands: there’s no record of how everything was originally put together. And, for the restorers, that’s a major issue; taking a few piles of old bones apart doesn’t sound that hard, until you see the size of them. In each of the ossuary’s four corners there are huge pyramids of skulls and bones, stretching far back into the recesses of the walls and filled with cobwebs and money (Jana told me that people just started throwing coins in there two or three years ago, presumably for good luck, and nobody stopped them).

Coins that have been thrown behind the piles of human skulls

These mounds are going to provide the biggest headache for the restorers, since nobody knows what’s holding them together. What they do know is that it’s going to take at least a year to dismantle each pyramid, send the bones away to be cleaned, re-plaster the walls behind them and eventually put the piles of skulls back together. Overall, Jana said, the work will take at least five years.

Before they hop that hurdle, the restorers are going to start work on the ceiling. That means taking down the huge chandelier, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, and the collection of skulls and bones strung up around it. No one at the church seemed to know exactly how they’ll make sure everything is put back the way it was. I was going to suggest taking a bunch of photographs and just labelling all the bones correctly, but apparently restorers are going to work out their own method at some point later this year.

Unlike the four big piles, the bone version of the Schwarzenberg family coat of arms – put together by Rint and featuring a raven picking out the eyes of a dead Turk – won’t need to be taken apart. You’ll presumably be pleased to hear that the terrifying cherubs sitting on top of towers of skulls and crossbones can also be safely left alone.

The place, unsurprisingly, can get a little unnerving, and even Jana admitted that she doesn’t like being left there alone after everyone else has gone (“I start to think strange things”). But the only notable incidents to have happened at the church involve the living; last year, for example, someone stole one of the skulls. “It happens sometimes,” Jana told me. “They sent it back in a box from abroad.”

The basement empties out briefly between tour groups, and when everyone’s gone you can see how badly damaged the church actually is. In one corner, the basement floor is sinking into the crypt below, though when it was opened up last year no one could see where the problem originated. Now, they’ll have to open up the various other crypts and side chapels around the ossuary, which are filled with yet more bones, in an attempt to find out the cause of the decay.

Despite the uncertainty, the church’s owners say the work desperately needs to be done, otherwise the whole place could collapse.

A tourist posing beneath the skull and bones chandelier

A local café owner named Josef told me that some local people aren’t happy about the renovation work. “Mostly older people – religious people – think it should be left alone,” he said. “Because it’s a Christian grave, they say it should be left in peace, even if that means it falls to ruin. Tourists shouldn’t be going in to look at it anyway. And everyone knows the restorers will never be able to put it back together the same.”

Despite the quibbles of the town's older residents, Josef wants to see the church restored, mainly because it brings visitors to his café. “I don’t know if they can do it,” he said, worried, “but without this church there would be a lot less people coming to Kutná Hora.”

Kutná Hora used to be rich, famous and important in its own right back in the Middle Ages. Today, now completely overshadowed by Prague in the tourism stakes, it’s been reduced to a mere day trip for fans of faded grandeur and very old human remains. 

One American tour guide at the church told his group that “there are bone churches like this all over Europe”. Though we’re not exactly tripping over them, he wasn’t totally wrong; Europe’s second-largest ossuary (after the Paris catacombs) was discovered ten years ago underneath the main square in the Czech city of Brno. It was opened up to the public in 2012, but the bones there haven’t been as artfully arranged and, despite being bigger, it’s nowhere near as well-known as the church in Sedlec.

If you like your bone churches a little quieter and much, much smaller, there’s a tiny chapel stuffed with decomposed human remains in Nizkov, a village in the Czech Vysočina region, and another small bone church 20 miles north of Prague in Mělník. There’s also an ossuary in Czermna, Poland, just 12 miles from Rint’s hometown of Česká Skalice, which might have been the inspiration for what he did here in Kutná Hora.

So, with plenty of alternatives available for anyone who's into that kind of thing, the restorers have their work cut out for them if they want to keep Kutná Hora's most popular tourist spot open to the public. For now, though, all we can do is wait, and check back in five years down the line to see if they managed the seemingly unmanageable. 

@ClareSpeak

More fun stories about death:

For My Dead Homies

Obsessing Over Death Isn't Just for Old People Any More

I Went to the Opening Party of Germany's First Lesbian Cemetery

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