Skulls and religion

The ancient Catholics were no wimps when it came to remembering their dead. If you happened to be a saint, you could bet that bits of your body would be preserved in some container to be revered forever. If, however, you were only a simple mortal, a tombstone generally had to suffice.

But then there were the few lucky ones whose inner self made it into the future. I am talking here, of course, of the skeletons of the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of believers that were lucky enough to have their bones kept for later use, rather than having them rot away underground. All over Europe, there are churches and monasteries with limited space whose last resort was to turn the burying business into a real business.

If you wanted grave space, you needed to pay up. Later, once your rent had invariably expired – no choice there – you could opt for eternal preservation. The monks of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome had their bones turned into something useful – a lamp, for example. In Hallstatt, Austria, your hard matter was more likely to end up as something artistic. Generations of painters were recruited to decorate the skulls of your beloved with names and symbols. Little did they know that their work would be exhibited against a modest fee to visitors from all over the world more than a century later.

While it might look ironic and slightly odd to us, these rather crude methods of the past are rooted in serious beliefs and reflect what an introverted community the people of Hallstatt were, not to speak of the Capuchins who had even more ideological reasons to preserve their forefathers’ body parts in their ossuaries. As they solemnly remind the modern visitor:

“What you are, we once were.
What we are, you will become.”