A Hauntingly Beautiful Surprise

By: Joanna Wallace

In the town of Hallstatt (Pronounced: HALL-SHTAHT), Austria, there is something called a Charnel House, or a vault/chapel where human remains are stored. In the case of the Hallstatt charnel house, it is filled with the cleaned and decorated skulls and bones of over 2,100 people.

When my brother and I arrived in Austria, we had never heard of “the bone chapel” or the town of Hallstatt, we simply wanted to book a tour of film locations of “The Sound of Music” throughout Salzburg. The 3-hour, big bus tours were filled, so we ended up booking a day-long trip in a van with a few other tourists that included free time in Hallstatt, and looking back, we were definitely lucky this happened.

Hallstatt is a very tiny town built into the side of a mountain because of its successful salt mines, and it is a magical place. The town square looks like something out of a dream, and walking through the streets really didn’t feel like real-life.

The town center of Hallstatt
A view looking back at Hallstatt from further down the main street (please ignore my lens spots thanks)

When our wonderful tour guide, Rosa-Maria, dropped us off at the edge of town, she told us a few things about Hallstatt, and she recommended places to see. She listed maybe four or five stops and a few restaurants, but my brother and I heard nothing after she mentioned “the bone chapel”-we were immediately hooked and ready to find it, though surprisingly the rest of the tourists seemed disinterested.

It took some navigation to find the exact building, but it is nearly impossible to get lost in Hallstatt, seeing as it has one main road and two “big” churches, and after we got sidetracked in the amazing cemetery we finally made it to a room that made both of our jaws drop.

This is a view of nearly the entire chapel

There in front of us were the remains of over 2,100 people; the skulls all placed on the shelves, and the long bones all neatly stacked underneath. With a closer look, we noticed the extremely intricate designs and names hand-painted onto the cleaned and displayed skulls-we had never seen anything remotely similar to this and we were glad in that instant that no other tourists were there.

If you’re wondering 1) why a plethora of cleaned skeletons are stored in a chapel when there is a cemetery right outside, or 2) why the skulls are decorated and presented in this way, then I have the answers for you!

  1. As I said, Hallstatt is extremely small and cramped and also built into the side of a mountain and bordered by a lake, therefore giving it no room for expansion. Because of this situation, for a period of time in the late 1700s, when people needed to be buried, the procedure would be to exhume the remains in an existing grave and replace them with the new body. The exhumed remains would then be cleaned, decorated, and prepared for a reburial ceremony in the charnel house. Nowadays, people are cremated or buried elsewhere, but anyone wishing to have their remains entered into the charnel house needs to write an essay and petition why they deserve this-the latest remains were placed in the chapel in 1983 and the skull has a distinct gold tooth still intact (shown in the picture below).


2. The paintings have a regional history.

“Skull painting was carried out primarily during the 19th century and belonged to a cultural area that mainly consisted of the eastern Alpine region (the Austrian Innviertel, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Tyrol, and Bavaria).”

The various images have different symbolic meaning, and the imagery used also goes through an evolution. The oldest paintings are the ones with the wreaths, “the darker the wreath, the older the skull.” The imagery continued going through changes as the artistic style of the times changed, with the latest paintings from the early 1800s being characterized as including “thin ivy branches on either side of the skull, Latin script and comparatively narrow crosses.”

Overall, seeing this place was amazing, and I think not knowing about it beforehand made our experience even more exciting. I am so grateful to have gotten this incredible memory!

All photos are mine.
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