I have always been interested in death. Once, when I was about five, I asked my mom if we could go to a cemetery – any cemetery, just to look around. We lived in Nevada, and it was November – I remember that it was a cloudy, cold afternoon, and all the leaves had fallen from the trees. We walked up and down row after row of graves; I noticed the interesting headstones, and I remember carefully subtracting dates to see how old each person was when he or she died. We only left when my mom got creeped out by her daughter quietly reading headstones in Halloween weather; she still shudders when I tell the story. When I got a little older, my favorite books were a series by Lurlene McDaniel about children and teenagers with chronic, sometimes terminal diseases. The best class I took in college was called Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600; I have a “favorite” historic epidemic, and I still regularly read non-fiction and watch films about death and disease.
I know this is a weird thing about me. My mom would want me to clarify that I had a very normal childhood, full of completely appropriate television and books, and there’s no psycho-social explanation for my comfort with the macabre. I’m happy and well-adjusted, and I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on death and dying. I just think diseases are an amazing lens through which to view whole cultures – there is something to be learned about the way the Black Death equalized social classes across medieval Europe, and the way the early spread of AIDS was affected by partisan polarization in the US in the 1980’s. I think Western culture in the 20th and 21st centuries is perhaps the first in the history of the world to be able to largely pretend death away, to in many ways erase the dead from ever having lived – an aberration, if a certain sort of spotless-mind blessing. Considering death – holding it up to the light, turning it over to see underneath and
around its corners – seems like the most honest thing to do.
I first heard about the Sedlec Ossuary from Maggie’s life list – it has been on my list ever since. In brief, it is a small chapel about an hour outside Prague, built beneath a large Catholic church, the Cemetery Church of All Saints:
This church became a desirable place to be buried in the thirteenth century, when a monk cast a handful of earth from the Holy Land across its cemetery. After the Black Death and the Hussite Wars, and given the normal needs of a church to grow and renovate, the number of graves became unmanageable, and very old bones began to be stacked inside, initially by a half-blind monk. Several hundred years later, a woodcarver put the bones into order – by incorporating them into the design and structure of the chapel:
I think the ossuary is two tremendous things – first, an immediate, personal monument to the many dead in the history of Central Europe, including the second-worst epidemic the world has ever seen. And second, a rare example of the dead represented among the living, literal support to a physical structure as much as metaphorical to many cultural structures.
And this month, my husband and I are going – to pay our respects, to remember that so many lived and died, to resurrect some of the good that is “oft interred with their bones” .