DEATH Travel Guidebook: Czech Republic
Many guidebooks distinctly lack pages dedicated to death. If you’re into immersing yourself in other cultures, one of the best ways to do it is to start with death. What a country does with its dead, as well as how much death it has seen, affects that country’s own personal identity. Don’t see your holiday as simply ticking off a few cultural boxes – take a look at the more morbid side and, in the process, get a different feel for the place. Start planning your next trip with death in mind.
You’ve arrived in the jewel of Central Europe, the rebel of the former Soviet bloc. This part of the world has seen the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War and, to varying degrees, all other Major Wars. Not to mention cholera, various occupations and plenty of eccentric death-related artistry. Perfect. Say goodbye to the tourist traps and candlelit dinners, here’s your alternative guide to the Czech Republic.
What you will need to bring:
Healthy interest in death
Disdain for the beaten track
Start at Kutna Hora and visit the Sedlec Ossuary
After a mere 1 hour journey from Prague you’ll come across Sedlec Ossuary. Affectionately known as the ‘Bone Church’, the Sedlec Ossuary is a church decorated with 40,000 human skeletons. That’s right, 40,000. Plenty of selfie opportunities here, then.
Back in the 13th century, the church became prime final-resting-place property after one of its abbots brought back a jar filled with soil from the Holy Land and sprinkled it about the cemetery. Soon, many locals were vying for a spot there.
In the 18th century, a dynamic duo comprising of a Czech priest and a local gravedigger collected and cleaned the remaining bones over a period of 18 years. Now, thanks to the artistic vision of the inventive pair, this church is a wonder. The bones are neatly and artistically arranged on a grand scale, and even an unapologetically kitsch chandelier entirely made from human bones hangs as a kind of centrepiece.
Next stop: Brno
A quick cross-country jaunt from Kutna Huna and you’ll end up in Czech Republic’s second city, Brno.
The Capuchin Crypt at the Capuchin Church in Brno is home to dozens of mummified monks and, it seems, the body of a paralytic woman unintentionally buried alive. Though, the crypt’s also housed in an early Baroque building with a great ceiling fresco. So, if you’ve got any reservations about the place being too niche, there’s always the comfortable sphere of Western art history to fall back on. Rather than the mummified monks, stick that ceiling on Instagram instead.
The monks here were thrifty and environmentally conscious: they would reuse the same, single coffin each time a monk died. After the funeral ritual, a monk would be taken back out of the token coffin and buried in the crypt under a load of bricks. The dry air and soil eventually just preserved them. Now, you can still see the remains as the monks’ frugal method unintentionally mummified their dead.
As you leave, you’ll come across the following warning, inscribed above the door in the crypt: “As you are now, we once were; as we are now, you shall be.” You don’t get that kind of material in Lonely Planet.
Melník, Chapel of Bones
If you simply cannot go without more vulgar arrangements of human bones, then you’re going to love the Chapel of Bones – just North West of Kutna Hora, in Melník. Central Europe has always been susceptible to a plague or two, as well as the occasional oddball academic, and the Chapel of Bones is a great example of this tradition.
Due to an historical plague, the surrounding area of Melník became overrun with bones and it was deemed sensible to start filling the church with the older bones once burial space became scarce.
A Czech anthropologist, Jindrich Matiegka, relished the opportunity to seemingly arrange over 15,000 bones into piles, recording vital information in the process. The largest pile is over 6 feet tall. If you’re thinking this sounds like an unsatisfactory display in comparison to the artistry of the Sedlec Ossuary, then you’ll be heartened to hear that this obsessive scholar has added a few original touches to his piles.
Spelling out the Latin inscription, ‘Ecce mors’ (‘Behold death’) in bones, Matiegka leaves you with a final meaningful thought. A pile of bones is always more than just a pile of bones.
Olšany Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Prague
From Melník you can easily scoot down to Prague. For all you revolutionary spirits out there, in the Olšany Cemetery you’ll find Jan Palach’s grave. As a student in 1969, Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in the city as a protest against the communist invasion and to spur others into resisting the occupation.
You can find Palach’s death mask at Charles University, also in Prague.
Last stop: Memorial to the victims of Communism
This series of statues stands in front of the entrance to Petřín Park on Újezd Street, and remembers those who died under the regime. If you stay long enough in Prague, you’ll start finding faint traces of the Communist past. While the Czech Republic used to be home to the largest statue of Stalin until it was taken down in the early ‘60s, the city’s fraught past with Soviet occupation can still be discovered.
Your death-related tour of the Czech Republic ends here. It’s time to finally cave in to that photo on the Charles Bridge and an overpriced, candle-lit dinner.
Remember, exploring the different ways a city or country approaches death – from endless ossuaries to revolutionary memorials – will always lead you in fascinating directions.