A popular if slightly bizarre sight to see in Hallstatt, a pleasant day trip from Salzburg, Austria is its Karner (Beinhaus / Bone House) where 600 painted human skulls are on display.
Hallstatt in Salzburger Land, Austria is inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List for the prehistoric Hallstatt civilization and the exploitation of salt, a source of wealth in the Salzkammergut area from the second millennium BC to the mid-20th century. However, the town is also frequently visited simply for its picture-perfect location between the Dachstein Mountains on the Hallstätter See (Lake).
A popular, somewhat bizarre sight in Hallstatt is the Karner (Beinhaus / Bone House) at the Roman Catholic Pfarrkirche (Parish Church). Here, over 600 painted skulls and some other human bones are displayed inside a small chapel adjacent to the local cemetery (Friedhof).
Ossuaries (Bone Houses) in Austria
Karner or ossuaries have a long tradition in Central Europe – literally hundreds existed in Austria and Bavaria although they went out of fashion during the late eighteenth century. It has long been the practice in Austria that graves are only rented for a limited period – usually between ten and thirty years. This custom continues in much of Austria – after the lease is up, family or friends either have to renew the lease or the grave is reused.
The German word Karner is derived from the Latin carnarium (caro meaning flesh) although Beinhaus (bone house) is much more common. In English, the formal term is ossuary, derived from the Latin ossuarium (os meaning bone).
In Hallstatt, the period human remains remained in the grave could have been as short as ten years after which the remains were exhumed and the skulls as well as some other large bones were moved to the bone house. From the late eighteenth century, it became a habit to paint the skulls before placing them in the bone house. These paintings often include the name of the person, year of death, and some other decorations such as flowers, leaves, and even serpents.
The Karner (Bone House) in Hallstatt, Austria
Lack of space and the need to recycle graves are usually given as the main reason for the existence of the bone house in Hallstatt. However, research has shown that of over 30,000 known deaths and burials, just over 2,100 skulls were documented. Even allowing for bureaucratic laxness, it seems moving skulls to the bone house could not have been an automatic process.
The custom of moving skulls to the bone house fell out of fashion in Hallstatt during the mid-twentieth century. Presently, skulls are only moved here if a local inhabitant specifically requested it in writing. The newest skull is of a local woman who died in 1983. Her skull is at the foot of the cross – golden tooth still intact.
- Seeing the skulls is slightly bizarre but the display is neither sterilized nor commercially exploitative or tasteless in any way.
Getting to the Karner (Bone House) in Hallstatt
The bone house in Hallstatt is inside the lower floor of the two-story Michaelskappelle (St Michael’s Chapel) that dates from the twelfth century. The chapel is adjacent to the cemetery at the Roman Catholic Pfarrkirche (Parish church), up the hill from the lake. (The large neo-Gothic Lutheran church is on the banks of the lake.)
The Pfarrkirche can be reached either from the parking lot in the tunnel or from the lower reaches of the town. Both routes have steep inclines and numerous staircases.
For drivers, Hallstatt is an easy day trip from Salzburg. Public transportation to Hallstatt is also possible by either train or bus with frequent connections from Salzburg or Vienna. Bus tours are also popular from Salzburg but the frequency depends on the season. The closest airport to Hallstatt is Salzburg’s Mozart Airport (SZG) with a large number of cheap flights from many European destinations.