An Orchestra of Bones: The Restless Spirit of The Dead

written by Laolu Ogundele

Here’s a philosophical question for you. What would it feel like to have skeletons in your closet? Scary? Shameful? Embarrassing? Okay… Now, how about a church full of skeletons? What would THAT feel like? You won’t be far from the truth if you chuckled and imagined it’d be a fitting setting for a horror movie.

But the residents of the beautiful Austrian town called Hallstatt won’t have to chuckle at that thought. To them, it’s a reality. Located at the heart of Hallstatt and next to the catholic parish church cemetery, is a chapel filled with not just one but thousands of skull bones of dead natives – all neatly stacked together. To further add to the eerie feel of the house, the skulls are, on closer inspection, painted with intricate designs and floral motifs. Now that’s not all… They also have the names and dates of the deceased owners painted on them. Talk about unsettling! It is said that cremation was forbidden in Hallstatt by the Catholic Church in the past. As you might imagine, with it being a small town, the inhabitants soon found themselves with a unique problem: there were not enough grave spaces to bury their dead! Well, that was until someone thought of a brilliant solution: Why not conserve the graves by leaving the bodies in the ground for a decade, exhuming them, then arranging the skulls and bones in a specifically chosen location as the ultimate space-saving measure? 2018

Talk about bizarre, but you have to applaud the innovation, given the circumstances. Moreover, if anyone ever needed to hold a family meeting with their late grannies, they knew exactly where to go! The tradition has since stopped as the church at Hallstatt became more tolerant of cremation, but the charnel house remains an exciting tourist destination for visitors today. 

Classic view of famous Hallstatt lakeside town 

 It is almost startling to hear this warning of departed time sounding among the tombs, and telling the lapse of the hour, which, like a billow, has rolled us onward towards the grave. Washington Irving

The tradition of collecting the bones of the deceased is not unique to Hallstatt alone. Another example is Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, England, which lies atop a 13th-century crypt that houses the bones of 2500 people. Talk about a church built on a solid foundation! Unlike Hallstatt Charnel House, much of the history surrounding the bones beneath the Holy Trinity Church remains either unknown or vague. Some natives have suggested that the bones belonged to victims of the plague, while others believe they are of ancient, deceased military personnel. However, the most common local legend surrounding the crypt is not one that explains its origins but rather its discovery. It is said that a gravedigger had accidentally fallen in whilst working in the Rothwell church about a hundred years ago. Descending a dozen feet into the darkness, the stunned manual worker finally clattered into a heap of bones. He has been so traumatized by the horror of the sightings that he lost his mind, remaining that way till his death. 

 Poor gravedigger! Perhaps he had been intently listening to a down-to-earth sermon while working at the church upstairs!

Though the rumors persist, nothing has been substantiated so far, which likely adds to the intrigue of the crypt. More recently, the vault has been rearranged to help visitors better appreciate its contents. Tourists can now head down the narrow, uneven staircase and be confronted by the bones that have been neatly arranged along the walls of the basement. In the middle of the crypt are wooden crates that house the thigh bones. Maybe the exact origin of the bones will one day be known. Or would you rather not know? I’ll leave you to answer that for yourself. 

 Now that we’ve geeked quite a bit on skulls and bones, it might be time we looked at something slightly different? For example, wouldn’t it be nice to see the actual bodies or, in this case, mummies of ancestors past gone, still resting peacefully in their coffins? An 800-year old crusader mummy beckoning at you? If you’re up for it, then a lovely place to visit would be the crypts under St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. Considered one of the oldest Churches in Ireland, St Michan’s Church can be found in an unassuming location just northwest of the city center and between two modern office complexes. The church itself is a fair sight to behold – boasting an old Victorian architecture and the presence of an original organ from the 18th century, with which Handel is believed to have played his first-ever rendition of his Messiah

 However, the big draw is the mummies that can be found in the limestone crypt several feet below. Lying hauntingly in open coffins, the corpses show remarkable preservation. While some claim that the relatively pristine state of the corpses is due to the dry and constant atmosphere within the vaults, others believe that it’s more related to the limestone-rich interior. Whatever the real explanation is, we’re glad that we can witness such brilliance, even if it came about accidentally. The corpses are said to belong to influential Dublins trades people from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In fact, some of the coffins are said to be decorated with gold. Talk about living the life – and afterlife. 

 If death is inevitable, who’s to say that there aren’t other things that are inevitable as well? A cross and an empty tomb say ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ Craig D Lounsbrough 

Many people find charnel houses, crypts, ossuaries, and tombs too macabre to be interesting. However, they don’t necessarily have to be. By observing the remains of our ancestors, we can collapse time and learn about their range of behaviors, motivations, and practices. As technology improves to help us analyze the bodies better, who knows what else we might find?

Who knows whether they have some messages for us?
Maybe they’ve chosen to persevere in helping us remember that our time on Earth is short?
Or that we have such poor taste in music? 🙂
We might never know.

The least we can do is respect those remains – if not for anything, for their toughness. Because, though the saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones…”, time clearly hasn’t broken many! 

Next post – Everywhere I go there I am