In the rocky mountainside cemetery in the pretty Austrian village of Hallstatt, space is at a premium. It’s been that way since the early 1700s, and the people of Hallstatt came up with their own way of honouring and remembering their dead.
At one of the highest points of the village stands the catholic parish church, its 12th century white tower a dominant feature against the mountain. The small cemetery stands in front of the church and alongside is a chapel.
Inside is the Charnel House or beinhaus (bone house), which holds more than 1200 skulls, 610 of them delicately painted with flowers and bearing the name and date of the person they once were. Skulls are stacked in neat rows and in family groups. Below them, also meticulously stacked, are more bones. Arms, legs…I don’t ask.
We’ve paid our 1.5 euros to enter this slightly unsettling tourist attraction. There’s not much room to move; the chapel is tiny. Or perhaps it is just the closeness of the atmosphere that makes it feel that way.
The Charnel House dates back to a time when cremations were banned and there was no space for continued burials. After 10 years or so, graves were opened and the skulls removed, sometimes with other bones. The grave was reused. The skull was cleaned and exposed to the sun and air for several weeks until they were bleached white. Then they were lovingly painted, with motifs of roses, oak and laurel leaves, trailing ivy, and sometimes snakes. Although this is no longer common practice, the most recent skull to go into the Beinhaus was in 1995, by specific request of a woman who died in 1983.
I’d like to be remembered when my life is over. But I think I’d prefer my ashes to be scattered to the four winds.
A Glass Half Full travelled to Halstatt as a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Board.