Monday, December 30, 2013

Tales from the Crypt: Hallstatt Ossuary

The Austrian village of Halstatt is one of the cutiest places ever. It's like one of those puzzles at Grandma's house. You can sit and look out over the Hallstätter See (lake), learn about their "world's oldest pipeline" made out of 13,000 trees, and when you're sick of the serenity, head inside the Beinhaus (Bone House), a crypt filled with human skulls. I love a good ossuary. Located in the basement of the Church of Saint Michael, the crypt has over 1,200 skulls dating back to the 17th century, nearly 700 of them being painted.

Halstatt is one of the oldest continuous human settlements, with finds dating back to 5000 B.C. Said to have the oldest salt mine in the world, Halstatt was flourishing by the 12th century and the town cemetery could not accommodate its growing (dying) population. At the time, the church did not allow cremation and the cemetery was soon bursting at the seams. A new policy was put into effect: Bodies would be buried temporarily and then exhumed 10-15 years later to make additional room. 

The exhumed bones were cleaned and grouped by family. The church in Hallstatt kept records of each skull, unlike the catacombs of Paris where the millions of bones remain nameless. Skull painting began when family members, unable to decorate the graves of their deceased loved ones, would paint the person's name, date of birth/death, various symbols, flowers, wreaths of ivory, etc. on the skull. The skulls are lined up in rows of wooden shelves along three of the chapel's walls, with 500 undecorated skulls being stacked in the corner. Underneath the shelves are their femurs, tibias, other stuff, etc.

Now that Halstatt's population is two-thirds less than what it was when the crypt began and with the growing popularity of cremation, the ossuary is void of recent additions. The last skull was added in 1995 at the request of a woman to be placed there. Apparently, the option is still available by request.