Death Be Not Proud: Seeing Life in The Bones

Decorated skulls in the Hallstatt Beinhaus

Tucked away in the small town of Hallstatt, Austria is a rather strange house. No one lives there, no one living, anyway. Sometimes referred to as the Hallstatt Beinhaus or the Hallstatt Karner (both roughly meaning “Bone House”), this abode serves as the resting place for hundreds of people, their former coils stacked up like macabre bricks around a small altar. The Beinhaus came into being in the 15th century with its last inhabitant laid to rest in 1995. The interesting tradition of painting the skulls with rose wreaths and laurels began in the 1720s.

A little further south in Rome, in the basement of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, reside the remains of 600 or so Capuchin monks. However, instead of painted skulls stacked up in a rather predictable way, the skeletons of these faithful brethren become part of the architecture in five of the six rooms (there are no bones in the Chapel where mass is celebrated). Ribs, femurs, and former fingers adorn large archways while pelvic bones and vertebrae create medallions on the ceiling. While most of the monks were parceled out, a few remain intact and stand in their habits, assuming postures of blessing that they would have held in life. 

The Crypt of the Three Skeletons

Perhaps the most profound and sobering of the 6 areas is the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. On the ceiling, a complete skeleton is shown holding a bone scythe in one hand (representing death, which cuts down everything) and the scales of justice in the other (representing judgement). On the wall, a placard reads “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.”

These giant ossuaries are fairly common around Europe and the Middle East. They were never meant to be grotesque or “spooky.” They were simply what people felt was a faithful response to a very limited amount of land for which to bury their dead. Families and religious orders would bury the departed for around 10-15 years before exhuming the bones and allowing them to dry and bleach in the sun before stacking them up with the others.

It might seem disgusting, strange, and downright weird. Truthfully, it gives me pause to see so plainly the “stuff of death” from which we are so readily sheltered; however, I believe that might be the intention, partially. 

Death has been on my mind quite a bit recently. The concentric circles in my life have seen their fair share of grief these past six months. As I ponder these things, I think of the audacity of those Capuchin monks to believe that those weary old bones were worth saving, and that God could do something miraculous through them. I think of the skulls in Austria, painted with laurels and crowned with roses. These skulls by virtue of their death appear to have failed, and yet in this bizarre, paradoxical instance, they are bedecked with marks fitting of only the victorious. 

Death is sobering. Death is a universal thief. It strikes down everyone: the poor, the wealthy, the powerful, the powerless, the faithless, and the faithful. Death is at once the fairest and the most unfair force in the universe; but, as we are a people who hold in their hands great paradoxes, death is the gate to life. 

There is a song by Audrey Assad that I have been playing quite a bit recently (when I am not binge-listening to Hamilton, that is). She captures succinctly and so beautifully the tension we feel as we watch the light of life dim in those we love. There is both tremendous turmoil and yet incredible hope. When I see photos of those skulls and femurs scattered about that crypt church in Rome, or the roses adoring the brows of the departed in Austria, I also see a radiating glimmer of hope floating underneath the fear and dread. It says “What you are now, we once were. But what we are now is not the complete picture.”