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Skulls, bones draw crowds to Europe's second ossuary

travel Updated: Dec 24, 2012 12:36 IST

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Dim lighting and quiet music accompany a faint smell of decomposing skeletons to complete a ghoulish ambiance that is proving to be a hit with visitors to a giant bone repository in the Czech Republic.

The long-forgotten ossuary in the southern city of Brno opened its doors to the public this year with a display of the best-preserved remains of tens of thousands of souls.

The collection is Europe's second largest after a repository in Paris.

"Some skulls are penetrated by a sword or bullet," said Petra Kacirkova, head of the local tourist information centre.

Some were victims of an unsuccessful Swedish siege during the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48, while others succumbed to the plague or cholera, or simply died by accident.

"A few of them injured their heads in dark cellars, for instance by nails," Kacirkova added.

Forgotten for some 200 years, the ossuary was discovered by chance in 2001 during building work under St James church in the heart of Brno.

Researchers spent a decade uncovering the remains, most of which came from a local German enclave, according to Kacirkova.

"An estimate based on the volume of skeleton dust showed there were about 50,000 bodies, but later calculations revised that number up," she said.

"I suppose there are more dead people to be found," she added, pointing at a pile of bones neatly arranged in a niche against a brick wall.

Built atop a smaller Romanesque church dating to the 13th century, the Gothic-style St James church with its soaring vaulted ceilings was encircled by a cemetery which was closed in 1784.

Under imperial reforms effected at the time, cemeteries were banned within the city walls, and many gravestones were used to pave the streets of Brno.

After the St James cemetery was abandoned, its auxiliary ossuary was also closed and forgotten for centuries.

"The burials lasted 500 years, roughly from the 13th century. People bought the graves for 10 to 12 years, then the bones were exhumed and stored in the church's underground chambers," Kacirkova said.

The venue, which has attracted 20,000 visitors since it opened in June, cost about 40 million koruna (1.6 million euros, $2.0 million) to open to the public. Half of the total was covered by the European Union, which the Czech Republic joined in 2004.

Death is omnipresent in the vaulted cellar, which features gravestones and modern sculptures alongside the skulls and bones.

Soft music by a local modern composer creates a solemn, pious atmosphere.

A marble wall at the street-level entrance lists the names of some of the people laid to rest there. Above it, a prayer inscribed in Latin reads, "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them".

An underground chapel contains some of the best-preserved skulls. In the centre of this grim room, a pillar of skulls and bones reaches to the ceiling near a tall cross and two coffins, one containing the bones of a 13-year-old child, the other a skeleton of a grown man.

Architect Ales Svoboda, who refurbished the ossuary's interior, insists that every effort was made to preserve its character and to handle the remains with due respect.

With piety in mind, Svoboda designed wire baskets supporting the bones to make glue or cement unnecessary.

"It's very impressive, very apt, and done with taste," Michael Holland, a tourist from Britain, told AFP.

Then he admitted: "But it is a little bit creepy."