The Hallstatt Karner

Hallstatt is a small village situated in the Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria on the south-western shore of the Hallstätter See (lake). It is home to an extraordinary karner (charnel house) also known as a beinhaus (bone house) which hosts some former 1200  town residents, mostly from the 18th-19th Century.

Karners were places of second burial and were once much more common in the eastern alpine areas, due to a lack of burial space; but have now largely disappeared.

  • The Hallstatt karner is located in a chapel in the basement the 12th Century Church of Saint Michael; abutting the steep cliffs of the Hallberg.
  • Because of the town’s mountainous geography, the townsfolk started to run out of space to bury their dead in the early 18th century, so they built the karner near the church graveyard, to store the bones of their loved ones and create space for future burials in the graveyard.

A graveyard burial averaged 10-15 years. After this, the remains were then exhumed and the bones were left out and sun-bleached, then stacked in the karner next to the bones of other family members.

  • The tradition of painting the skulls began in the 1720’s, as a way for the deceased to maintain their identity.
  • Approximately half of the karner skulls are painted; each with the deceased’s name, birth and death dates; and symbolic designs.
  • The skulls belonging to women were painted with colorful floral designs; and those belonging to men were decorated with an ivy motif.

The Bone House in Hallstatt is one of the last karners, and it has always contained one of the the most remarkable collections of painted skulls, anywhere.

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