You wouldn’t know it as you walk down the street in Brno, but under your feet lie the remains of fifty thousand people. Their bleached bones are tidied away in an underground ossuary. It happens to be the second largest in Europe. However, I’m surprised at how small the space is.
Anička is working again today so I am filling my time by taking a walk past the traditional singers and antique buses in Náměstí Svobody to Saint James’s Church.
I climb down a dozen steps, out of the heat and into the darkness of the ossuary.
The charnel house had around since the thirteenth century to store the remains of those who died. At the time, the graveyard was too small to keep burying bodies and couldn’t be expanded.
To fix the problem, remains were exhumed after ten to twelve years and placed inside an underground chamber.
In the seventeenth century, when the city elders were planning a new ossuary they did not expect it to fill up. But plagues and cholera hit. Brno was surrounded by the Thirty Years War, as was much of Europe, and the Swedes periodically decided to place the city under siege. So, they extended it to join the crypt of Saint James’s Church. And then extended it again.
By 1784 there was no space left and the ossuary was finally sealed. At the same time, the city council decided to start burying people outside of the city limits for hygiene. Over time the ossuary was lost.
The square that the church sits on, Jakubské, was to be renovated in 2001. Before they started work, an archeological survey was carried out and the ossuary was rediscovered. Now that it had been reopened it had to be included in the renovations. The damp air would have rotted the bones and the square would have collapsed. All the remains were removed, cleaned and returned.