The prettiest graveyard I’ve ever seen is located outside the Catholic church in the village of Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut lake region of Austria. This village of about one thousand people is sandwiched between the Hallstatter See (lake) and the steep hillsides that ring the lake.
Sandwiched into this space is a small Catholic church. The tiny graveyard adjacent to the church looks over the stunning lake and nearby mountains. It is like none I’ve ever seen. The surface of each grave is beautifully planted with different types of living flowers and greenery. Rather than a tombstone, each grave has a lovely marker standing above it with information about the deceased and other ornamentation. Each grave is carefully manicured.
Because of the small size of the graveyard and a ban on cremation by the Catholic church until 1963, this diminutive graveyard could not accommodate all the deceased of Hallstatt. So, and interesting custom developed.
After ten to fifteen years the skulls and long bones of the deceased were exhumed, ‘cleaned’, dried in the sun, then placed in a charnel house, the Beinhaus of Hallstatt. In order to identify the skulls, the names and dates of birth and death are carefully painted on each. They are beautifully decorated and stored with all previous residents of the graveyard, grouped with the skulls of family members.
Of the 1200 skulls here, 600 have been hand-painted with decorations, mostly of flowers. This tradition, begun in 1720, evolved from the fact that flowers were traditionally laid on the grave sites. The painting of the skull is considered an act of love.
The last skull was placed in the charnel house in 1995 at the personal request of its ‘owner’.