The Bone House of Hallstatt and the Catholic Death Cult

No question, my articles on the bone house of Hallstatt have been on hiatus.

I never knew retirement could demand so much of my time. In the previous post I ended by saying that the standard explanation for storing decorated skulls in the Karner – the graveyard is too small – is at best only a part of the story and that the whole story is far more complex and also more interesting.

I’ve left that contention hanging for some time, and I’m afraid I’ll have to defer a full explanation a little longer. For now, the short story is: people who claim the graveyard is too small have it backwards, sort of. The skulls and the graveyard are the trappings of a particular kind of death cult – the Catholic death cult as practiced by the parishioners of Hallstatt.

Before anyone accuses me of blasphemy, I should add that death cults are simply the rites and practices associated with memorializing the dead before, during, and after death. Although sometimes mystical and sometimes occult, they are one of the hallmarks of an organized society, and I find their sheer diversity fascinating. In my opinion, then, any explanation for the existence of the bone house has to include the practices of the death cult of the Roman Catholic Church, or “the Church” for short.



I’ll elaborate a little with two short posts. This first one consists of a series a points that simply list why the standard explanation falls far short of the whole story. You can hang your hat on those points, but each one needs to be elaborated with explanations and examples. I’m preparing those.

The second post, coming soon, will be a fictitious interview with an imaginary resident of Hallstatt. That interview will shed some light on my list of points from a different angle, but it won’t tell the whole story, either.


Here are the major points;

  • Veneration of heads is ancient and is found in many different societies throughout history.
    • Roman geographers reported that Celts thought the human head was the seat of the soul.
    • In Welsh mythology the head of King Bran continues to speak and give counsel to his subjects for years after Bran was mortally wounded.
    • Some traditional Balkan communities add another belief: afraid that the departed may rise as vampires, they also remove skulls from the dead shortly after burial.
  • Second burial customs, such as excavating the remains of your ancestors some time after their first funeral and displaying them in some kind of setting are in no way unique to Hallstatt, or Catholics, or for that matter Europe.
  • The Catholic death cult rests rests firmly on basic doctrines of the Church: veneration of saints, purgatory, resurrection and the last judgment. It’s practices show the influence of so-called pagan beliefs and superstitions. They include many local variations and traditions.
  • Until recently, saint worship dictated graveyards in close proximity to a church. It has its roots in the earliest days of Christianity in Rome, when its followers met underground and were laid to rest in catacombs, preferably as close as possible to the grave of a martyr.
  • Saint worship evolved over the centuries, acquired new meanings and contexts, and was enhanced by local practices.
  • The monastic reforms of Odilo of Cluny at the end of the first millennium laid the groundwork for storing skeletal remains in bone houses.The Church formalized the use and construction of Karners (bone houses) with the Synodes of Köln (1279) and Münster (1280).
  • By the 19th century, hundreds, if not thousands, of skull depots existed all over Europe. They were common in the Alps, but the they were also abundant in non-mountainous areas. Different communities observed different rites and customs in the style of display and decoration of skulls.
  • By the beginning of the 20th century, many parishes started to dispose of their skulls. By the end of WWII, skull collections had largely disappeared. The buildings which housed them still stand, either attached to a church or in close proximity, as in Hallstatt. They can often be recognized as former bone houses by their names and by their architecture. Most are now used for other purposes.
  • At the end of the 19th century, the Church changed its position on cremating corpses. It became legitimate in the eyes of the Church, but it didn’t become widely accepted until late in the 20th century. Even now, many Catholics prefer to be buried in a grave.
  • Nearly every community has found a way to deal with scarce grave space. Many parishes graves simply recycle their graves. New occupants are buried on top of the skeletal remains of old burials.
  • Hallstatt continued to give their deceased a second burial until the last decade of the 20th century. The last skull to be added to the bone house belonged to a person who died in 1983.

Ossuary baseler totentanz

All of these points need to be further elaborated and placed into context.

In one context it’s interesting to see what you get can get when start with love, add dollops of fear, ignorance, and superstition, and then structure the whole thing in church doctrine.

I find it fascinating to observe what happens to religious beliefs when calamities like the Great Plague and monstrous wars sweep entire countries and continents. Graveyards really were too small, then.

I find it even more fascinating that you can start at the simple beginnings of Christianity, arrive at richly decorated skulls in a bone house, and end up with an explanation such as:

“the graveyard is too small”.

I’m glad Hallstatt continued their second burial traditions of decorating skulls long after most communities abandoned the practice. The Hallstatt bone house is nothing short of a cultural treasure. But the Hallstatt parishioners didn’t have to dig up their dead, remove the skulls and decorate them, and then display them in a small chapel because their graveyard was too small.

They were stuck with a small graveyard because of their preferred death cult, and they developed a rich tradition to go with it.


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