For those who like the morbid and macabre, the thought of visiting a vault full of human remains maybe too tantalising a trip to pass by. The Beinhaus (Bone House) in the Austrian village of Hallstatt however, may leave more sinister-seeking visitors a little disappointed. Yes, it is full of the skulls and bones of generations of Hallstatt villagers, but far from being eerie and creepy, this ossuary/charnel house is a rather charming and lovely place.
Hallstatt lies along the western bank of Hallstätter See (Lake Hallstatt) in the heart of the Salzkammergut. The tiny train station that connects the village to the rest of Austria sits on the eastern bank, two kilometres of water away. Although it is not the only way to get from station to village, the small ferry that meets the daytime trains is certainly the easiest, quickest and most romantic way to reach Hallstatt village… as long as the water’s not too choppy.
Hallstatt lies along a very thin strip of land, sandwiched between the lake and the salt-rich mountain behind it that has provided the village with its fortune and place in salt-mining history. With land in short supply, the oldest part of the village has always been rather compact.
Not only have villagers adapted well over the centuries to living in the geographical constraints of Hallstatt, they have also adapted the dying there as well. The old Catholic church of the Ascension of Our Lady is built into the hill and both the living and the dead can enjoy stunning views over the lake from its lofty graveyard. Until recently however, they couldn’t enjoy a permanent resting place there. The problem with a graveyard being up on a hill in a village where land is hard to come by, is its lack of capacity: it was always going to be too small to accommodate the generations of villagers who wished to be laid to rest there.
So, in the twelfth century the parish came up with a solution: bodies were respectfully buried in the graveyard and given a proper religious ceremony accordingly. Twenty years later the bodies were exhumed freeing the graves up for the next generation of deceased Hallstatt villagers. The skulls and larger bones of the freshly dug up remains were cleaned and carefully laid out in the open for several weeks until all signs of decay had disappeared and the bones had turned a beautiful ivory hue under the heat of the sun. The bones were then finally and permanently laid to rest in the Beinhaus, next to the church.
In 1720, local undertakers and artists started to chemically treat the bones instead of laying them out in the open, before decorating the skulls with painted flowers and leaves. The painted flowers were seen as a permanent symbol of the love and respect shown when real flowers are laid on a grave. The specific leaves and flowers chosen to adorn the skulls further symbolised one of four ‘triumphs’ over death: Glory (oak leaves), Victory (laurel), Life (ivy) and Love (roses).
At first I was apprehensive about taking photos inside the Beinhaus. After all, these are the remains of people at rest and I wanted to show respect to the dead. But, the keeper guarding the door actively encouraged visitors to take photos. “Take your photos and celebrate their lives!” he boomed with a beaming smile, waving myself and a handful of other visitors into the vault.
Thankfully, no one felt the need to take a selfie with any of the skulls.
With the growing popularity, legalisation and papal relaxation on the act of cremation in Austria, the necessity to reuse graves in Hallstatt and place the remains in the Beinhaus is no longer required. Remains are now only placed in the Beinhaus on a villager’s request.
Visiting a building full of bones no matter how touching the sentiment may be, is understandably not to everyone’s taste. Most visitors to Hallstatt come because of the village’s architectural cuteness – if Hallstatt had a pair of cheeks there would be a never-ending queue of people waiting to take turns to pinch them – and because of the village’s historical importance in salt-mining.
The Hallstatt Salt Mine has been producing salt as far back as the eighth century BC. Archeologists found evidence of one of the first Celtic settlements in Europe close to the salt mine and as a result the village is regarded as the type site for this early Iron Age people’s way of life known – in honour of the village – as Celtic Hallstatt culture. The mine is now a museum and is open to the public during the Summer months. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit it, but I did enjoy the stunning views from both the modern funicular that carries visitors up the hill to the mouth of the mine, and the hilltop viewing platform over the lake.
Hallstatt can be reached by bus or train via Bad Ischl. The journey takes around twenty minutes and there are a number of trains and buses daily. Signs from Hallstatt’s train station platforms lead down to the bankside where the ferry can be picked up to go across the lake to the village. This journey costs a little extra – just a few Euros – and tickets can be bought on board. The journey takes around ten minutes. More details on how to get there can be found on this Hallstatt villager’s website here.
The Beinhaus is opened from 10am to 6pm daily during the Spring and Summer months. Entrance is €1.50 (2016). It is reasonably well sign posted from Hallstatt Markt, but I’d advise popping into the tourist information centre by the bus station in neighbouring Hallstatt Lahn and pick up a free map of the village to ensure you don’t get lost.
The Hallstatt Salt Mine is also open daily during the Summer months. More details can be found on the official website here.
A combined ticket for the Salt Mine and the funicular is available, but a funicular-only ticket can also be bought. Ticket prices and timetables for the funicular can be found on the Salt Mine website here.
Breaking Bad Ischl: crystal clear waters and meth-od in the madness of a gung ho emperor holidaying in this happy-go-lucky Salzkammergut town
Dachstein-Krippenstein … ice caves, 5fingers and the Dachstein Shark
Walking through a city of bones underneath the City of Love: the remains of over six million bodies laid to rest in the Catacombs of Paris