Poles honour the dead at Skull Chapel

Anna Maria Jakubek
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This picture shows skulls and bones covering the wall of the St Bartholomew?s Church also known as the Skull Chapel in Czermna District of Kudowa, on October 31, 2017

From inside the tiny baroque Skull Chapel in southern Poland, Father Romuald Brudnowski offers up a prayer for thousands of nameless individuals whose bones line the walls of an unusual place of worship.

"Dear Lord, please take care of those who for 200 years have been waiting for resurrection," the Catholic priest said Wednesday in Kudowa-Zdroj, a mountain town by the Czech border.

Brudnowski and around 100 parishioners had just completed an annual procession around the chapel and its adjoining church and cemetery to mark All Saints' Day.

"We come here to pray for the dead, for all the dead, regardless of whether they were our enemies or compatriots. That's our tradition," said a local resident named Maria.

Built in 1776, the chapel serves as a mass grave for up to 30,000 victims of epidemics and conflicts from around the area known as Klodzko Land.

"Klodzko Land was a kind of bargaining chip among different nations and there were constantly different wars taking place here," said tour guide Aleksandra Leszczynska.

"So a lot of the remains of people who died in battle were left lying around. Between battles there's no time to dig graves and bury people... Over the centuries, bones just started coming out of the ground," she added.

Eventually, a local parish priest, Czech-born Father Waclaw Tomaszek, realised what was happening and decided the dead needed to be honoured.

He enlisted the help of a local gravedigger, named Langer, and the duo began collecting and cleaning bones and arranging them one by one in the chapel.

"This here is a chapel of human suffering and death... We say that it's not a museum, but a mass grave," Sister Jolanta told AFP.

It is the only such chapel in Poland and one of just a few places in the world where human bones are out on display. Others include the Catacombs of Rome and The Bone Church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.

- 'Ashes to ashes' -

Around 3,000 skulls and bones adorn every inch of wall and ceiling inside the chapel, while another 25,000 or so people's remains fill the four-metre (13-foot) deep crypt.

Tourists can peer into the underground space and catch a glimpse of some of the bones through a metal grille after Sister Jolanta pulls a hatch along the wooden floor.

"At the beginning the skulls came right up to the floor. Now we see that it has all slid down by around 1.5 metres. Meaning these bones are disintegrating," said Leszczynska.

"There's the saying, 'ashes to ashes and dust to dust.' That's how it is," she told AFP.

Above ground there is an altar with several types of bones on display, including a long shinbone that probably belonged to a Swede who had fought in The Thirty Years' War.

The skulls of a syphilis victim and of Langer the Gravedigger are also exhibited, as are those of a mayor and his wife who were both killed -- by bullet and bayonet, respectively -- during The Seven Years' War.

"Those who fought here not only included Czechs, Germans and Austrians, but troops of other nationalities were also sent over to fight," Leszczynska said, before holding up the skulls of a Tatar and Mongol.

"Here we can see the bones of different nationalities, different people. Sometimes they fought on opposite sides, right? But now they lie together. So it's probably not worth quarrelling."

Tourist Jaroslaw Mariak, a retired police officer from the southern city of Sosnowiec, first visited the chapel as a teenager on a Boy Scout outing.

"I was 17 or 18 and remember being a little frightened and disorientated by what I saw, because it was a lot of bones and skulls... I think there was this peculiar chill. And a smell, too."

Back for the first time, decades later, he was less affected, perhaps because of the years he spent investigating crime and "having rubbed shoulders with death".

His wife, business owner Mariola Pietrasinska, said she felt "a sadness, gloom because so many people died in such a short span of time."

"And I thought to myself that maybe it's for the best, this place, because it reminds us of death, and that life is short and miserable, so we should make the most of our time on earth," she said.