Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bone Church

For those who don't know, an ossuary is a place to store human remains.  In areas where there is little room for continual burial, bodies are buried temporarily in the ground and dug up years later after they've decomposed to the bone.  The bones, which can fit more compactly, are placed, stacked, organized in ossuaries.  Ossuaries can be buildings, boxes, wells, or chests...of any size.

One of the most famous ossuaries is the Sedlec Ossuary, better known as "The Bone Church."  Sedlec is located beneath the Roman Catholic Church of All Saints in the Czech Republic.  In 1278 Henry the Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II if Bohemia.  Henry returned with a container of dirt from Golgotha and sprinkled it all over the cemetery.  Word spread that it was really holy ground and everyone wanted to be buried there.  In 1511 the below ground population was out of control and according to legend, the task of removing and arranging the bones fell to a half blind monk.  In 1870, after numerous rebuilds throughout the ages, Frantisek Rint was hired to put the bones in order.  The Bone Church is the result.

So, aside from it being interesting and perhaps to some...morbid, I think The Bone Church is probably one of the greatest statements about the fear of death.  There are between 40,000 and 70,000 bodies in Sedlec.  While an incredible number, it is the disinterment and decorative use of the bones that speaks volumes.  We try to hide death. We codify it.  We dismiss it.  We whisper it.  Our society no longer considers the words "died" or "dead" polite.  Someone "passed on" or "coded" or "slipped away." You can use any euphemism you can but dead is dead.  We paint our corpses and put them in beds so they look like they're sleeping.  We even put their glasses on even though their eyes are sewed shut.   It's clean.

Sedlec Ossuary puts it right out there in front of you.  You can't escape it.  The bones look at you and you look at the bones.  What do you think they think about you?

Society thinks those who honor or are infatuated with the idea of death are "freaks."  They are "goths."  They are "morbid" and "sick."  We find death rituals from around the world distasteful because most of them either deal directly with the body having no professional mediator, or celebrate those who have died and remember them in what Americans might call "morbid" ways (such as leaving a dish of food on the grave for the dead to eat).  People need to remember that it was not more than only 60 or 70 years ago that we lay the dead out on our kitchen tables and the family would wash down and prepare the body.  Sometimes even taking photos (and I'll talk about Post-Mortem photography later).

Sedlec embraces the fear.  It embraces the morbidity. It makes you look at it directly. It makes you realized that we are all the same on the inside.  We are all going to end up the same way.  As a Catholic Church, I cannot believe that Sedlec leaves the follower unaffected.  It speaks of the Christian God and most likely steels the faith of His believers.  To those not of a Abrahamic Faith it probably affects others in a much different way.  Perhaps revealing personal spiritual questions of the self.  Is there a soul?  Where do we go after death?  I have my theories and beliefs but they are my own.  The only thing we really know is what the body reverts to when it stops living.  Everything else is up to interpretation, belief, faith, debate and reason.  The skeleton is fact.

For more information, please visit the official Sedlec Ossuary.

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