As the bow of the ferry cuts through the serene waters and sedately approaches Austria's village of Hallstatt, it's easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The earliest proof of human existence in the area dates back to 12,000 B.C. so it’s not surprising that the place looks like it stepped off the pages of a history book. The colorful gothic and baroque-style buildings are built straight into the side of the mountain and perched precariously above the the picturesque lake below. It takes less than 30 minutes to walk the breadth of the village but don’t underestimate its tiny size as there are boundless opportunities for adventure in Austria’s lake district. There are mountains to climb, the world's oldest salt mine to explore, ice caves to traverse, and of course, the water.
The scenery is idyllic and you could gaze at the adorable houses all day, but Hallstatt’s most fascinating feature is one you’ll certainly miss if you are content enjoying outward appearances. Instead, take a short walk over to the Catholic church, stroll through the tiny cemetery and keep your eyes peeled for a building with double doors which, rather shockingly, features skulls on the exterior. Twist the handle, step through the threshold and you will find yourself in a dimly lit, whitewashed interior piled full of bones and human skulls.
The scene may sound gruesome, but Beinhaus, the bone chapel, has been a regular part of life for residents of Hallstatt for centuries. Located in a village the location of which limited any kind of growth, the adjacent cemetery quickly reached capacity. This forced residents to get creative with their burial techniques. Their solution? A bone chapel.
In the 12th century they decided to unearth the bodies that had been buried at least 10-20 years to make room for the newly deceased. They removed the skulls and remaining bones from the graves, cleaned them and bleached them in the sun for several weeks. The resurrected bones were then used to decorate the chapel.
Beginning in the 1720s, artistic designs were painted on the skulls’ as a sign of respect. Placing flowers on the grave was no longer an option so instead, they pressed the tip of a paintbrush to the ivory surface to create pictures of roses, oak leaves, laurel, and ivy. The result is a collection of thousands of artistically painted skulls, stacked neatly in rows by family.
The necessity of a more spacious cemetery decreased drastically as cremation became a more viable option in the modern world. However, that shouldn't stop you from letting the bone chapel be your final resting place if you so choose. If you feel a particular attachment to the centuries-old village after your visit, you are more than welcome to state the request in your last will and testament. So...any takers? If you'd rather remain a visitor, that's okay too.