Second burials used to be commonplace at Saint Michael’s Church in Hallstatt, Austria. Surrounded by a graveyard it has a basement charnel house. Such bone houses are also known as ossuaries. They have have been a part of Central Europe burial traditions since the 12th century. By the late 1700’s, however, the practice of using them was waning.
The area of Hallstatt is inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List for the prehistoric Hallstatt civilization. It also known for its salt, a source of wealth from the second millennium BC to the mid-20th century. But it is the Hallstatt Beinhaus (bone house) that captures the imagination.
It is home to more than 1200 skulls. Over 600 of them are elaborately decorated with hand painted flower designs, crosses and the deceased’s information. Due to the small size of church cemeteries, the bone houses were developed as a way to handle the lack of space. This was especially important because Austrian graves were rented for anywhere from 10 to 30 years and cremations were forbidden at the time.
Once the rental period was over – if the rental lease was not renewed -the graves were opened. The bones were removed and the skull was cleaned and exposed to sun and moonlight until they became bleached ivory white. They were then traditionally decorated by the grave digger. Flowers for females, wreaths of ivy for men. In addition nearly every skull was embellished with a cross on its forehead.
The skulls were grouped by family with many of the family’s descendants still living in Hallstatt. Each skull is accompanied by fairly complete records of births, death and marriages that date back as far as the 17th century making this site an ideal source for genetic studies as well as obviously a gold mine for anthropologists who study cranial traits and heritability.
With the proper writer request, this service is still available today. In fact the most recent skull was moved in 1983. It was relocated to the foot of a cross, gold tooth still intact.