The First Years of Eternity: The Gravedigger of Hallstatt

Author: Christoph Ransmayr
Translator: Seiriol Dafydd

How slowly the gravedigger climbs up the escarpment. Deliberately and rhythmically, his eyes steadfast on the path, he heaves up his bodyweight only to let it drop into the next step. Bent slightly forward, steadily, and in silence, that’s how you walk in the mountains. The rainwater streams in tangled veins down his shoulders, down the black gabardine coat. Winter is over. But on the northern slopes above the tree line the snow still lies deep.
On the edge of a steeply sloped clearing in the forest the gravedigger turns towards me, points towards rock ledges and mountain ridges and recites their names. Like flaking chalk, shreds of fog slip down the stoneheaps. Far below us, in the calming patter of the rain lies the coldest, most southerly lake of the Upper Austrian Salzkammergut Mountains and on its shore, small and evanescent, Hallstatt; the salt-mine town.
The houses lie piled upon each other down below as if someone had emptied a toy box over the hillsides: only a few dainty roofs have wedged themselves into the wooded gullies, most have rolled down to the shore. The valley, which opens toward the south of the village and seems to lead far into the mountains, becomes narrower behind the last houses and finally turns into a gaping fissure that ends between vertical walls of rock. No way through. The mountains rise overwhelmingly from the water. No space. No level, tranquil surface to be seen.
‘The Protestants’ church.’ The gravedigger points into the depths. We have come to a standstill. His church, the Catholic one with the graveyard, lies too close to the hillside to be visible from here high above. The graveyard, he says, is the most beautiful spot in Hallstatt; so protected beneath the rocks of the Salzberg and beautiful above the roofs and the lake. We turn back towards the steep path.
The graveyard. In Hallstatt, where there is hardly room enough for the living, all that is left for the dead is a walled terrace, a stony loam-filled nest in the shadow of the Catholic parish church. That is where we set off from. We’ve been walking for an hour. Down below, between the graves, fenced in by wrought iron and wooden crosses, is Friedrich Valentin Idam’s house. The gravedigger’s house. Idam lives in the graveyard as if in a hanging garden. Crosses and graves outside his kitchen window. Crosses outside the windows of his workshop, and only a few steps from his front door, the barred archway of a tunnel vault in which innumerable shin, hip and arm bones and one thousand three hundred skulls lie cleaned and piled – the ossuary. The charnel house. For almost four centuries it has been the custom in Hallstatt to paint skulls destined for the ossuary: oak leaves and ivy on the brows of the men, flowering branches and garlands on the brows of the women – spring gentians, ragged robins and globe flowers, just as they grow above, on the Dammwiese in Salzberg Valley. And in amongst these decorative flowerbeds, the names of the dead set in gothic, ivory-black lettering. For example: Here lies the high-born Frau Maria Ramsauer, Wife to the Master of the Mine.
So ornately do they honour their dead here, for perhaps the souls’ grief over the exhumation of their mortal remains also evaporates over these delicate compositions in Veronese green, cobalt blue, vermillion and Terra di Sienna. There is hardly a single tourist, the gravedigger had said as he opened the iron-barred gate before me, who lets the sight of these skull rows go by unseen – death in decoration. 250,000 tourists each year, and to think that Hallstatt is a town of hardly three hundred residents. Some of the garlands, he said, had turned completely pale under the frequent flashing of cameras.
On the shores of Lake Hallstatt eternal peace lasts ten years, sometimes fourteen, rarely longer. No-one is allowed to remain in the ground for the whole of eternity. The churchyard is too small. And so it is not sufficient that the gravedigger lays the corpse of a resident of Hallstatt in the earth so that what was made of dust, returns to dust. No, after the established period of buried slumber has lapsed he must also bring those entrusted to his care back to the light of day – after ten years, or if people are actually dying off and there’s a lack of burial places, even sooner – and he has to clean their bones at the well of the cemetery and lastly stack them in the ossuary. That’s how space is made for future generations. And it is still sometimes the case today that the next of kin of those being transferred ask the gravedigger to paint the skull of their loved ones.
Askew above the front door of the gravedigger’s house hangs a plank nailed to the protruding roof. A skull will sit there for weeks. In the sunlight. In the moonlight. As long as it takes until all the shadows and horrors of decay have bleached to a mild ivory. Then Idam places the skull on the workbench before him and, using a fine sable-hair brush and the iron oxide and clay earth pigments he mixes using casein and slaked lime, he paints the stipulated flowers and lettering on the brow.

How cold it is here above. We climb through a gorge known in Hallstatt as Hell. Beneath a wooden footbridge a stream shoots into the depths. The gravedigger indicates for me to continue. Little talking is done on such a walk. We have talked enough in the depths down below. We sat in the kitchen of the gravedigger’s house, a slow morning, and Idam told me about his work. Ten, even fifteen graves, each year, he said. There are some, of course, who prefer to be cremated in Salzburg than be buried by him – as well as those not belonging to any denomination. It takes him eight hours of work to dig a grave with a spade and a mattock and he receives between two and three thousand Schillings in return. In addition, seventeen cubic meters of wood which he’s allowed to fell in the high forest, the use of the gravedigger’s house for free, and the grazing rights for goats and sheep between the graves. Naturally he does not take any money for the graves of the poor. Nor for painting the skulls. That work, he says, is an honour.
As Idam talked, visitors to the churchyard sometimes appeared outside his windows. They removed coagulated wax from the borders of graves, arranged flowers in cone vases and then simply stood there. Their lip movements were prayers, no doubt. We sat by the kitchen stove, drank tea from Darjeeling, and old-fashioned pop music crackled and hissed from a cassette recorder on the window sill. Friedrich Valentin Idam is not yet twenty-five years old.
He’s young, too young, some of Hallstatt’s residents thought when he applied for this arduous office. He was nineteen at the time. But ever since the old gravedigger passed away himself, and Fischheindl, alias Heinrich Kirschschlager, who later painted the skulls, was also long since buried, the salt-mining town had often had difficulties with internments. So it was at this time of need that young Idam wanted to become gravedigger. Very well: they assign him a grave, a test-grave, and leave him to it. Digging a final resting place must be done alone. Beneath each cross in the Hallstatt graveyard lie two corpses which must be moved before the weight of the earth can be lifted for another. Idam begins to dig, determined and fiercely to begin with, then ever more hesitantly, until he comes to the old coffin. Now he has to wait. He squats in the grave; the sky above him is only a strip and he, between these walls of earth, completely alone. He then opens the coffin with a pickaroon. He’ll never forget the snow-white hair and the face of the corpse. It is not disgust he feels, it is … no, he will not really be able to describe the feeling later either. He batters the rotten casket, throws the debris out of the grave to be burned, lays the corpse bare, as it is, one level deeper and covers it with a thin layer of earth – the base of the new grave. He carries the bones of the second corpse, which had lain beneath the old coffin, into the ossuary. That is the unchanging work of the Hallstatt gravedigger. The task has become neither easier nor harder for him.
In any case, after this test the new gravedigger was called Idam. Just Idam.  And by now there is no longer any doubt in the parish that he knows how to paint a skull and that the graves he shovels in this used and saturated earth are good and deep. Deep! That is how they want to be buried in Hallstatt. Even if it’s not for long. Some, however, find it remarkable, others unseemly, that Idam attends not only to the dead. It is all well and good that he paints pictures, carves sculptures or casts them in bronze, and has books. But writing letters to the province governor, calling for public meetings, and protesting against the use of glass and concrete in building work between the dark wooden houses, is hardly the gravedigger’s concern. Emperor, king, nobleman, burgher, farmer, beggar, linen-weaver, gravedigger, that’s the due order, they say. But a lot has changed in such matters too.
Certainly, Idam said as we made our way up here to the cemetery fields of the Hallstatt period in the Salzberg Valley, certainly, it hadn’t been necessary for him to come here as a gravedigger. He could just as well have taken over his father’s carpentry business back home in Braunau am Inn. He finished secondary school in Braunau and then went to Hallstatt to learn the woodcarving trade. But life here and the wonderful, stark landscape around the lake, everything here had become so familiar to him that he didn’t want to leave. After completing his training he began to look for a flat, and for work. He hadn’t wanted to go to the salt mine. The gravedigger’s house was standing empty. The post was vacant. That’s how it all started. But yes, he had always been somewhat infatuated with the absurd, the bizarre and with the past; and, in addition, the fascination of death. But, he said, it is one thing to give a task a try and another to continue with it. Since he’d been living at the graveyard, he’d changed and no longer had dark inclinations. He now carried out his work with a feeling that he is providing people with a special service. How many others can claim that of their work? What is there, ultimately, that’s more helpless and vulnerable than a corpse?
The gravedigger’s house is crammed with sculptures – reliefs, weldings, woodcuts. A large oil painting in Idam’s workshop shows a slender, seated woman. A beautiful picture. His best, perhaps, Idam said. So what is he? A painter? A sculptor with a side-line? When I called the Hallstatt presbytery and asked for the undertaker, because other names appeared crude to me, a voice in the dialect of the Inn region which I cannot reproduce here, said: “Speaking. That’s me. The gravedigger.”

There is nothing to be seen of the lake, which was only a minute ago lying between the mountains like a fjord. We’ve reached the Salzberg Valley, a gently rising high mountain valley in comparison to the gradient of the path that lay behind us. During summer a cable car lugs the tourists up here by their thousands. But now we appear to be the only ones in the mountains. The mountain station, and the miners’ settlement at the upper end of the valley, are as if abandoned. Everything appears as if it had always been so: uninhabited, quiet and partly hidden by cloud. Very quiet. Of those now at work in the tunnels, in the innards of the salt mountain, we can hear and feel nothing. Hundreds of meters underground, they blast chambers into the rock, direct water into the cavities, thereby leaching the salt from the stone, and pump the brine to the extraction houses. There are still around a hundred miners. But the miners’ houses of the Salzberg Valley all stand empty. Ever since a lift deep in the mountain was built leading all the way up here from Hallstatt through all the horizons of the mine, no-one has had to live in this narrow valley where the summers are short and cool and the winters are never-ending. But one, says the gravedigger, one single miner still lives up here. We don’t come across him.
The ancient cemetery field, an Alpine meadow across which we now walk up towards the tunnel entrances, has put Hallstatt, literally the ‘salt town’, in the history books. In the sparse topsoil of this meadow, Celtic miners buried their dead along with the signs of a culture tied up with salt-mining, a culture whose beginnings are lost in the mists of the Stone Age. Neolithic hunters had already climbed up into this inhospitableness because of the salt springs, the acidic water and the rock salt and they left axes and fragments, undecorated traces behind them. But between the ninth and the fourth centuries BCE, the salt miners had brought their culture to such a wonderful flourish that modern-day researchers and excavators named a whole era, the age of transition from the European Bronze Age to the Iron Age, after this valley, the site of their abundant discoveries: the Hallstatt Period.

The archaeologists opened more than two and a half thousand graves on this meadow before closing them again. They tested the skeletons, formulated hypotheses regarding burial and cremations, and filled whole museums with burial objects taken from the earth – there were amber necklaces, bronze vessels, brooches with artful runic inscriptions, swords and daggers complete with ivory inlays, and golden jingles that were supposed to adorn dead women for all eternity… In exchange for all these treasures, academia only left behind a few information boards on this meadow and a window to the Ice Age – a model grave in which skeletons made of plastic lay beneath glass.
It is unthinkable in his graveyard, says the gravedigger, to remove even a single silver livery button from an opened grave. Only the skeletons were to be taken to the charnel house, everything else, the rosaries and jewellery, stayed under the earth forever. It had, of course, come to pass before he transferred remains that a relative requested him to look for a medal, a gold tooth or a ring that must still be down there somewhere. He could understand that. There weren’t many rich people in Hallstatt. But a grave is a grave.
We’ve entered one of the few unsealed tunnels on the hillside. Pit lamps glow at regular intervals on the tunnel walls, a meagre procession of light leading into the mountain. Here too no-one but ourselves. Seepage water trickles down the walls of the shaft in slow tears. It is so quiet here that we hear nothing but ringing in our heads. That’s how it is below ground.
Over the course of centuries tremendous ground pressure has closed the tunnels and the burial chambers of the Hallstatt period once again. Only sometimes, when a landslide shifted the rocks, or when tunnelling a new shaft, would prehistoric chambers and niches be suddenly revealed. Then climbing trees blossoming with salt crystals, kindling and bronze pickaxes would be found. In April of 1734, the undecayed corpse of a miner was discovered under such circumstances – the dried Man in Salt. They knocked him out of the rock and carried him down to Hallstatt. But where to bury him? How long had he been lying in the mountain? Perhaps the dried man had not even been redeemed by the cross but had rather been a heathen. So they buried him in God’s name in the recess of the Hallstatt cemetery apportioned for suicides and the unredeemed. This event is recorded in the beautiful flourish of a quill pen in the Latin death register, a parchment chronicle of decease stored in the presbytery which has continued in consecutive numbering over the centuries since.
The tunnel in which we went further into the salt mountain is hardly wider than a door. At this time of day trolley trains often drive out. In that case there would only be room for us in one of the tunnel’s niches. We have to go out and, in any case, return down to Hallstatt, says the gravedigger. He has promised the priest that he’ll ring the bells in parting for a deceased without denomination who is being taken to the Salzburg crematorium today. Denomination or not – the deceased miner had been a Hallstat resident after all.
Our path leads us into the Echtern Valley. No-one has described the splendour of this valley, indeed these mountains as a whole, like Adalbert Stifter, says the gravedigger. The deserted miners’ settlement falls back behind us. The Salzberg Valley folds shut like a book. He can read Stifter over and over, can never get too much of him. And Hauff, Tieck, Novalis, Brentano … other things too, certainly, but the German Romantics most of all. Idam knows many passages from his chosen reading matter by heart and slips, as he narrates, into quotation, into recitation. Then he changes mid-sentence to High German; his voice becomes solemn. He is suddenly inside a novel, a poem. He is declaiming. Is he just acting? Is someone here putting on a performance – the portrait of a young man as gravedigger? How wonderfully everything fits together – the mountain cemetery, the gravedigger’s house, the Romantic, the Grimm Reaper and the Angel of Death, the black gabardine coat… Idam even writes his letters in dated Gothic handwriting and types poems on his typewriter, a custom-build, in Fraktur! No, Friedrich Valentin Idam counters, this is no act. Only once has he ever played the gravedigger. In a TV movie. A minor role. The institution gravedigger at a mental hospital.
We’ve reached the edge of the Echernwand rock face, which drops down vertically for more than three hundred metres, before overhanging again in rocky cascades. This is where we have to go down. The path hewn from the rock, the Gangsteig, is hardly more than a serpentine scratch serrated into the stone. The gravedigger leads the way. No more words now until we reach the valley. And then back to Hallstatt on the Echern Valley road, passing waterfalls which appear to flutter down rather than fall from the misty height. We’ve been walking for four hours. A brass band is setting up outside the chapel of rest. The gates stand open for the last journey: in the semi-darkness of the hall a catafalque, a coffin; a tear-stained face.
We climb the covered staircase to the church. Only these stairs and a path hewn into the hillside lead to the cemetery, no road. Then we’re standing in front of the ossuary. The gravedigger leaves me here and goes to ring the death bell for the miner. The bars of the ossuary are closed. The skull rows behind them a dull silver. The bones of a still unbleached skeleton lie in a fruit crate by the bars like firewood. The earthy skull on top. The archway looks to the east. In the mornings there is nowhere brighter in Hallstatt than this vault. The charnel house, as the priest of Hallstatt had explained to me, was the true grave of the parish. Out there in the graveyard the Protestants still lay separate from the Catholics. But in the ossuary no distinctions were made – no sign of denomination or social status, no graves of splendour, no pomp. In the ossuary, everything was as it was supposed to be.
At the first chimes of the bell the brass band also begins to play. A gusty wind leaps coldly from the lanes and rasps rapidly slithering blue-black shadows onto the surface of the lake. This is not a death wind. With southerly wind, the gravedigger had said, there are many deaths. In the cold, the sick and the elderly would once more muster up all their strength in the hope for milder days ahead. But it is exactly then, in the requiescence of the southerly wind, with a gasp of relief and decreasing diligence, that death comes.

Die ersten Jahre der Ewigkeit, from Der Weg nach Surabaya by Christoph Ransmayr,
© 1997 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main

Translation © Seiriol Dafydd