We were in Prague searching for things to do, when we found something that said “a church made entirely of human bones”. That was it. We were sold. Next day, we met the guide in Prague’s Old Town Square, along with 10-12 other people with an interest in the aesthetic and architectural possibilities of human bone.
The group consisted of us, a British couple celebrating a birthday, some Americans, and some other forgettable people. Only the Brits and the Americans made themselves memorable during the day, for all the wrong reasons obviously. But first thing first, we had to get to the church.
The church of bones, aka an ossuary, was in a town called Kutna Hora, about an hour’s train ride outside of Prague. Our guide, Katerina, was our beleaguered mother for the day. She made us wait at a specific point and forbade us from moving. Like children, we sat down and pouted for a few minutes while mother went and bought our tickets. The British couple wandered off to a store to buy beers for the train ride. “It’s my birthday” said the woman, as if anyone needs an excuse to buy beer in a country where beer is cheaper than water [true fact]. Mother came back, chided the British couple for disobeying her, then we all headed for the platform.
The train ride passed mostly without incident. Mother passed around menus to choose our lunch for later, which you’d think wouldn’t be a difficult task. It wasn’t, but remember this: American Woman One ordered the whole trout. Remember that, okay? It’s important.
At Kutna Hora, we walked to the ossuary. Around it was a cemetery, where we told that over the years the cemetery filled up, and to make more space, the priests decided to dig up old skeletons and stash them in a closet (or something). It was also a much sought-after cemetery after someone fetched some soil from Jerusalem itself and brought it back. Once the cemetery was almost full, Czech woodcarver Frantisek Rint had the novel idea of putting the bones to good use. He made a chandelier out of them. I’m not joking. I’m not sure if the relatives of the deceased were consulted or not, but it would’ve been a weird phone call.
“Yes, hi. I’m from the Kutna Hora cemetery. We have your great-grandfather Clyde buried here.”
“That’s correct. What about him?”
“Well, umm, we’re kind of running out of space here. So we were wondering if, err, you’d be okay if we dug up Clyde, broke up his skeleton, and used his bones to make a chandelier.”
“Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of joke?”
“It’ll be really cool-looking, I swear.”
“Oh ok. If it’s going to look cool, go right ahead.”
I assume those conversations never happened, but they went ahead and made that chandelier anyway. And scientists have ascertained that every single bone in the human body is present in that chandelier, and in most cases more than one of each bone, giving a new, literal meaning to “many hands make light work.”
In four corners of the chapel were four big cages. Inside each cage was a giant pile of skulls, probably 1000 skulls in each, just stacked on top of each other, all facing out, staring right at you. They’re not glued together in any way, so literally if you prodded them or threw something at them, they’d collapse. Naturally such a precarious situation needs some security. Maybe glass panes or some mesh bars like at a zoo. Instead, the current guardians of the ossuary decided that the best protection would be grated bars big enough to put your hand through.
Mother sternly told us all not to throw anything at, or try and touch, the skull piles, so naturally the British guy stuck his hand through the bar as soon as Mother was looking elsewhere. Suddenly an alarm started shrieking. The British guy retracted his hand, looking sheepish. “Sorry,” he muttered, looking at his feet while everyone in the ossuary was looking at him.
We finished taking photos and resisting the urge to touch, then Mother showed us a few other things around Kutna Hora, which was a very sleepy, small town punctuated only by some buildings around which tourists crowded. Then we went for lunch.
Mother told us it was a popular local restaurant with great food and great beer. Inside, the walls were decorated with stuffed animals, some sketches or landscapes drawn on old paper, and from one spot on the ceiling hung a metal cage, which was apparently used to publicly humiliate cheating spouses. “I’d love to see you up there,” said Birthday Girl to her partner, but loud enough so at least half the table could hear.
“Oooh I bet you would.”
We were spared further Carry On antics because just then American Woman One became shrill. She had just been served a delicious looking plate of trout, eyes and all. Remember: she had ordered the full trout.
“What is this??!” she shrieked. “What am I supposed to do with this?!” Everyone looked at her. Mother was sitting further down the table, but she came over.
“Is everything okay?”
“No! Look at this. Does this look like okay to you?”
Mother looked at the plate, her voice strained. She’d been showing us around for a few hours now, talking, educating us constantly. She needed a break. “It’s trout. You ordered trout. Is there a problem?”
“Of course there’s a problem! How can I eat this?!”
This went on for a while. American Woman One was deeply unhappy about something, but no one was quite sure what; in fact, one of the few orders the restaurant had managed to get right was hers. I mean no disrespect to them. It was a big group of people and I’d be amazed if they’d got everything right.
Eventually, we discovered that American Woman One was aggrieved that her trout was only trout. She wanted side dishes and salads and bread. Everyone else was eating beef goulash with dumplings or duck with cabbage, or many other delicious-looking dishes. American Woman One just had trout with trout. Mother tried placating her, but in the end American Woman One just sulked and picked at the fish with her fork, huffing and murmuring, then eventually clattered her fork to the plate and sat in silence. We ate our beef goulash and duck and cabbage and dumplings in gleeful schadenfreude.
Then it was time to leave. We took the train back to the city and that was it. We never saw any of the group again. Never saw Mother/Katerina again. And the next day we were looking for new things to do. No morals, no life lessons, just memories of a chapel made of bones and of a grumpy American. Happy days.