Eternally at rest in Hallstatt

Overlooking the Hallstattersee is probably the prettiest tiny cemetery I’ve ever seen. Less than a hundred graves are privileged to have a spot here. Land is such a premium that in the past, before cremation was allowed or encouraged, graves had to be vacated after 10 or 20 years and the plot recycled to the newly dead. But what to do with those old bones that are dug up? They had to go somewhere right? Thus begins one of Hallstatt’s most interesting sights – the Beinhause aka the Bone House.

Coming from the water you can see the hull of the church standing above the houses and the lovely fresco gives a hint of all the pretty to be found up here. Hallstatt’s little Catholic church with the big name – Our Lady of the Ascension – has been around for the last 800 years or so. Getting there is a bit of guesswork – we just followed paths and stairs that led up and in the general direction of the church. We entered the grounds through the ‘back gate’ so instead of coming upon the church building first, we started through the churchyard and cemetery.

For me, the star is not the Beinhaus,although many come to see that. I enjoyed wandering around the neatly tended plots with markers made of wood or iron and always with a burst of colour from the flowerbeds. Unlike the Chinese graves I see back home or even in the Christian cemetery, these graves are lovingly tended. There are no overgrown weeds, cracked concrete or limp dried stalks left over from a long-forgotten visit.

The Chinese believe that a good, well-placed resting place is the key to future prosperity and good fortune for successive generations. Often a great deal of effort and money is put into securing a good site since this would augur well for one’s descendents. So what makes a good resting place by fengshui principles? Somewhere preferably on the side of a hill, not at the top nor at the bottom, and facing a body of water with a panoramic view. Given these points, the tiny cemetery certainly fits the bill for one of the best resting (and most restful even for the living!) places in the world.

The Beinhaus or St Michael’s Chapel, sitting serenely amid the graves.

The Beinhaus itself is not big but holds thousands of skulls and bones from the exhumed graves. More than 600 skulls are painted with meaningful leafy or floral motifs. For example oak leaves symbolise glory while ivy symbolises life and roses symbolise love. This tradition started in 1720 after the churchyard ran out of space.

In the old days, they would exhume the bones, wash, dry and leave them out under for a period of time until the bones were bleached to a nice ivory colour. I kinda like that idea that the bones commune with nature, soaking in sunlight and moonlight, in wind and rain, for a while before being interred again. Then they would be painted by artistic undertakers (See! There’s more to an undertaker’s job than we think!) and set in the Beinhaus.

Today, there are no more new placements in the Beinhaus since 1995. You’d have to make a special request to have your bones interred here. With cremations on the rise, there is less need to bury in the churchyard. But I was thinking, even if one can’t be buried here (residents and parishioners of Hallstatt only!), it would be just as nice to have one’s ashes scattered here and blown all over the pretty village, the lake and the mountains. Way to get instant permanent residency in Hallstatt!

The little church itself has impressive details to boast of. It’s twin wooden gloriously painted altars reign as the centrepiece that would not look out of place in a bigger grander church elsewhere. The flowers, candles and hushed glowy setting reminds me of my schooldays and having mass in the school chapel – warm memories indeed.

Will end this post with some of my favourite pictures from the cemetery:

I really like this one below. Because I like cats and this one looks so at peace. Maybe Maria and Franz did too. In these lovely tranquil surroundings, like them, I would be happy to rest in peace.


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