I made this trip in the summer of 2013. The memory has lost some specificity, but no magic, since then.

I was so wrong about so much, and so glad to be.

To get to Sedlec, we began with a train from Prague to Kutna Hora. My first error lay in transit time – we spent closer to two hours headed east by train than one. A lot of the Czech Republic felt agrarian in a way that reminded me of middle America, and we were deep in that country when we disembarked.

Once several years after this, on an under-slept morning in Switzerland, I got on the wrong train and only realized my mistake after the train started moving. The lightning bolt of stress and fear I felt in that moment threw me back to when my husband and I stepped off the train in Kutna Hora – I have done something terribly wrong and it will be hard to fix.

It was like a ghost town postcard – when the train pulled away, there was a bench surrounded by grass waving gently in the breeze and a road that bent around to nowhere. We looked at each other wide-eyed, and started walking. The first thing we saw was a sign pointing to a cigarette factory. I learned later that for a long time, Kutna Hora’s churches were an economic engine; for a while after that, there was a silver mine; and now, this factory is an important artery for the town.

It was a short walk before it became clear that the next thing I missed was a big, incredible thing. 

Kutna Hora is home to the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec – a UNESCO world heritage site. It is breathtaking.

You can get in the rafters. If you are like me, you will find this dubiously safe, but do it anyway.

Those pipes tho.

The bones of 15th-century martyrs.

The Ossuary is across the street. 

When I pictured it, I imagined a close, poorly lit space that would feel heavy, both viscerally and

emotionally. I thought I would feel a mantle of We are here to confront and pay tribute to the unavoidable reality of death descending from the rafters to my shoulders upon walking in the door. I wasn’t prepared for so much light.

The basement has windows, and we visited at midday in July. Maybe in winter, or at dusk, or when it rains, the gloom I was ready for is there – but not that day.

Bones

also have a smell. The air was cool, and somehow sweet.

The signature of one of the men who began the collection.

When we entered the space, a woman at a small desk asked what language we spoke, and when we answered English, gave us this charmingly-translated, much-used handout, asking us to treat it gently and give it back before we left. Here was another surprising source of light:

“It’s guessed the Ossuary is a common grave of about 40,000 people. This work reminds us of the fact and the worth of eternity. God has concluded a covenant that put us under an obligation to responsibility towards God and our neighbors. The observance of the covenant will be appreciated when we die.”

The people who spend every day there see the Ossuary as a joyful reminder of our common humanity, and to be good to one another while we live.

People think about photographing, and being photographed near, reminders of death in different ways. It didn’t feel appropriate to me to say cheese at any point in the ossuary. On the same trip to Europe, my husband and I also visited Dachau, and I had this feeling times a million there. Many others didn’t, in both places. I netted out at a view that isn’t an objective right answer.

Outside the Ossuary, across the street, there are competing ice cream stands. I thought this place would be both dark and reverent – hushed under its own weight. But of course – when you live right next to it, even a house of the sculpted bones of 40,000 people is just a place, and all the visitors glad as ever for something cool and sweet on a sweltering day.