The Ancestor Pilgrimage Continues: Two Czech Charnal Houses
I think one of the really intense highlights of my ancestor pilgrimage was the two ossuaries I had the privilege of visiting in the Czech Republic. This was actually my whole purpose in visiting Prague (though that city in and of itself is enchanting): it was an easy day trip to both Sedlec and Brno.
After visiting Czermna, I had some idea of what to expect, in terms of how exposure to such places and so many dead might affect me so I was a bit better prepared the day we went to Kutna Hora (the entire town is, I believe, a UNESCO site. There are two cathedrals that are also UNESCO listed – we visited both. One has one of the oldest Gothic Madonnas in Europe and the other the bones of st. Felix and St. Vincent. While the latter didn’t speak to me at all, I found myself very drawn to the former. Then of course there is the Kostinice…the bone chapel).
Two years ago I didn’t even know these places existed, save for the ossuary in Paris (which I have never visited). On my trip to London a couple of years ago, I stumbled across this book and later this one.
I was completely blown away and kept returning to these books again and again for inspiration. There was an intense beauty there, the vestiges of a deep, deep devotion. I found nourishment in knowing that these places existed and a deep pain that they no longer held the place in our social and religious consciousness that they once had done.
In his book, “Empire of Death,” Koudonaris notes that “…charnal houses were once part of a dialogue with death that has now fallen silent;” and, more accurately than he probably realizes, “the dead were not expected to be silent.” (p. 10 and 16). This pilgrimage was, more than anything else, my way of re-opening that dialogue, of bringing those forgotten voices, that lost wisdom back into my own work, and into our communities. We do silence our dead in our culture and I think it’s part and parcel of our forced separation from our ancestors. Ancestor work, venerating our dead, moving amongst them is as natural as breathing and yet we have been taught to cut ourselves off from that source of vitality and inspiration. Meanwhile our dead have so much to teach us and in some cases are clamoring to be heard. It is only by steeping ourselves in the wisdom of past devotion that, I believe, we can learn – re-learn—how to hear them with clean, consistent clarity. I think we need desperately to restore the dead to our ritual landscape, palpably, viscerally, and with fervent devotion. The dead speak and their bones help us hear them.
One of the things Koudonaris notes in his book is that it has been recorded “that adults would come to the charnel with their children and show them the skulls of their ancestors as an introduction to their family history.” I find that…powerfully profound. It both roots us in our history and ties us to the flow of eternity in a way that isn’t macabre or frightening, but intensely connected and hopeful. Being able to embrace the bones of our dead not as an abstraction but visually, viscerally with hands and eyes and hearts changes the parameters of every kind of veneration. It makes it real in the here and now in ways that I think sometimes many of us struggle with.
Anyway, the day after we arrived in Prague, we made a day trip to Kutna Hora. Firstly, the town itself is lovely. It’s worth going and spending a few days there in the old part of the town. We didn’t have the luxury, only visiting the two cathedrals and the bone chapel. Walking into Sedlec was absolutely and utterly overwhelming in every possible way. At first I thought that it was just because one is permitted to go in alone and to spend as much time as possible there; then I realized it was because it was probably the largest, active ancestor shrine in the world.
Think about it: people, hundreds of thousands of people if not more come from all over the world, every year to visit the site. Whether they realize it or not, with their candles and coins and attention, they’re paying homage to the dead and let me tell you, the dead there are very aware of the fact. There was palpable presence. In fact, I was there for a long time because I wasn’t permitted to leave. At first I couldn’t figure out why and then I realized there was a lot of military dead on the site. Once I realized that, I was able to pay proper attention to them too and then was able to depart.
While at Sedlec, I was able to discharge some obligations. I had been asked to light candles for a couple of people while I was away and I did so at this bone chapel. There was a small candle stand where one could do so, which I thought was just lovely and what was even more lovely was that people were lining up to do so.
It’s so hard to breathe when approaching these places. They’re intensely sacred places and that sense of the holy permeates every aspect of the land on which they’re centered. Going into them is dizzying and often massively overwhelming. There is reverence and the smell of bone, the aroma of holiness. Even covering my head as I did, MAG had to keep an eye on me because I was so disoriented. I won’t speak of what passed between me and the dead in this place; I’ll only say that I made offerings and those offerings were heard and received. We spent most of the day in Sedlec and it was hard, very hard to tear myself away from the bone house.
Two days later we went to Brno. It was an ordeal but Hermes got us through. We almost weren’t able to actually visit the ossuary! I got to the church of St. James and it was closed for renovation. I actually considered trying to bribe one of the workman to get in, but the language barrier prevented that. I could palpably feel the dead beneath my feet. I had moments of such a powerful connection as I walked around the square hoping against hope for some way in. It was viciously hot so we decided to have lunch at a café on the square while we regrouped. Our wonderful driver Vladimir went and asked around and discovered about an hour later that the entrance to the ossuary is not actually in the church, but rather free standing right nearby. We’d never have found it – it looked at best like the entrance to the subway! Going down the stairs I felt pulled and all but tumbled into the entrance area.
This is one of the most peaceful and serene places I have ever been. I really like how the city is tending to this ossuary: they have local artists engaging with the bones, creating pieces that are then tastefully and quietly displayed around the site. It begins for instance, with a metal sculpture of Charon. Going into the ossuary itself, standing before the dead, bones and skulls all around, rising up from floor to ceiling, down short tunnels and branching off into different rooms, I received a palpable feeling of being blessed. That is what I took from Brno: the blessing of the dead.
I could have stayed in that ossuary for hours. I read once that Capuchin monks in Rome would often sleep amongst the dead in the ossuary of Santa Maria della Concezione. I understand why. I have never had the peace in my soul that I tasted for the brief time I was there.
After Brno, we went to Austerlitz battlefield which was surprisingly non-eventful. It was interesting, but battlefields usually lay me out really hard and this one didn’t at all. Then it was back to Prague.
In my next writing about this pilgrimage, I’ll focus more on the Marian pilgrimage that I (accidentally) did simultaneously with my ancestor one and I’ll also write about the bone chapel in Cologne, which was the end of my ancestor pilgrimage and again, a place where so many threads resolved.
(all images are mine. Please do not use without permission)