12th century St. Michael’s Chapel in picturesque town of Hallstatt hides one of the world’s most famous charnel houses. Charnel house is the place where human skeletal remains are stored and are common in the area where burial space is scarce. It is believed that due to the lack of land for graveyards and acute lack of space at the cemetery in Hallstatt the tradition of reusing the existing graves for new burials developed. The skulls and bones from the old graves are transferred from the grave to the ossuary as part of a second funeral. This tradition was common in Austrian Alp regions, but today it is alive only in Hallstatt, making it home to the largest collection of skulls. The skulls are not only stored, but artistically painted as well. The tradition of skull painting began here around the year 1720. Skull decorations help preserving the identity of the deceased family member. The skulls are mostly labelled with the full names or initials. Decorations are mostly in a form of the cross, wreath, flowers, ivy branches, oak leaves or oleander, depending on the time when they were decorated. The deceased usually remains in the grave for 10-20 years until the skull is taken out of the grave, then cleaned by the gravedigger, and then set up for bleaching in the sun and moon in the open air. The point of this process is to get the ivory colour of the skull. The painting on the skull is done at the discretion of the painter and family members.
Around 1200 skulls are stored in the chapel today; around 600 of them are decorated, which represent only a small fraction of the deceased population of the town. Today it is still possible, on a special request to bury the skull in the Ossuary. Both Catholics and Protestants follow this tradition and although the Catholic and Protestant graveyard is separated, the skulls end up together at the same charnel house. Some theories state that the tradition of the skull-painting doesn’t come from the lack of the space in the graveyard, but it is connected to family traditions.
The charnel houses in St. Michael’s Chapel represents one of the most interesting tourist sites in Hallstatt. It is located in the hills above the town close to the prehistorical salt mines and alongside the route of the oldest industrial pipeline in world still in use. It can easily be reached by foot or directly by a car. From the courtyard of the chapel you can experience amazing views of the town Hallstatt, the lake and the mountain range Dachstein. This entire area is one of the Unesco protected World Heritage Sites in Austria.
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