Vienna and Death
Vienna and Death: an eternal love, a special relationship embracing sentimental, melancholic coquettishness and an almost passionate intimacy. As a well-known wine tavern song goes, there’ll always be wine, but we won’t always be here to enjoy it. Opulent funerals with a large cortege of mourners can still be the source of gushing enthusiasm.
And on All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day at the beginning of November, when the dead are remembered, Viennese stream to Vienna’s Simmering district by the thousands to visit the Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), Europe’s largest burial ground. But surely this is logical: the Viennese simply love life. Therefore, they also love death, the other side of life.
It may be a bit of a cliché that the Viennese have an especially close bond with death compared to other city dwellers, but this one happens to hit the mark. A yearning for death seems to have native roots in Vienna. At wine taverns, the proverbial Viennese easy charm often quickly topples into profound death melancholia; and the Central Cemetery is one of the largest recreational areas within the city limits. The mortal remains of members of the imperial family are laid to rest in crypts that contain an elegant air of eternity. And entire museums containing curios and absurdities surrounding Death (who, according to a well-known wine-tavern song, is Viennese himself), evoke delicious feelings of horror.
It cannot be a coincidence that Sigmund Freud discovered “death mania” in Vienna of all places, and that Erwin Ringel, known in the world of psychology as “Mr. Suicide,” founded Europe’s first crisis intervention center in Vienna in 1948. And in Vienna, Johann Strauss the Elder and Younger, both tormented by fears of traveling, old age, sickness and death, produced music that will remain immortal: the Viennese waltz, underneath whose seemingly blissful facade one can always find melancholy and grief.
Central Cemetery & First Class Funerals
Once called an “aphrodisiac for necrophiles” by artist André Heller, Vienna’s Central Cemetery is the second largest burial site in Europe (after Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg), with an area of 2.4 square kilometers and over 300,000 graves in which three million people are laid to rest.
At the same time, it is a profoundly Viennese institution. City dwellers often visit it for a family outing or simply as a place to walk, enjoy roasted chestnuts or sausages just outside the cemetery gates and, if they are lucky, maybe even witness great culture – free of charge. Members of the Vienna Philharmonic and choir singers from the Vienna State Opera sometimes supplement their incomes at open graves with schmaltzy Ave Marias or somber funeral marches.
Nothing is too expensive for eternity; at least, that’s what the Viennese seem to think. With a Schöne Leich (“beautiful funeral”) – an interment on a grand scale with a splendid cortège, professional speakers at the open graves and an opulent funeral meal – they pay their last homage to their loved ones. About half of all bereaved choose the pricey “First Class Funeral.”
Economy Coffins & Grave Digger Accessories
The expenditures of the Viennese on funerals have brought about some peculiar ideas. In 1785 Emperor Joseph II came up with the “Economy Coffin,” a coffin with a flap on its underside, through which the corpse could be dropped into the grave – permitting re-use of the coffin. As original and money-saving as this invention may have been, the Viennese simply would not have it. They demonstrated their indignation in riots and protest marches and forced the regent to take back his edict.
One of these economy coffins can be seen at Vienna’s Undertakers Museum (“Bestattungsmuseum”). The 600 exhibits surrounding the death cult include mourning liveries, funeral sashes, grave digger accessories, urns, coffins and hearses as well as such inventions as the “life-saving bell,” with which people who were not really dead could draw the attention of the mourners from inside their coffins. This invention was later superseded by an alarm – a wooden box with a loud ringing device. The fear of being buried alive was not unreasonable. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicians estimated the percentage of “seemingly dead” to be as high as 0.5 to 2 percent! To avoid this fate, many people decreed in their wills, that – before being buried – they should be stabbed in the heart or have their veins opened; it may be that only these actions, in some cases, actually killed them.
Imperial Cemetery Reforms
For many centuries, the Viennese wanted to bury their dead as close to their homes as possible. The largest cemeteries were therefore situated in the center of the city, near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, St. Ruprecht’s and the Abbey of the Scots (Schottenstift). This practice came to an end during the reign of reformist Emperor Joseph II. He forbade funerals in churches and crypts in the center of the city, which particularly overflowed during epidemics. He had cemeteries built in Währing, Matzleinsdorf and the Schmelz area, all of which were still suburbs at the time. He did not anticipate that the city would grow as rapidly as it did: before another hundred years had passed, these graveyards were again surrounded by dwelling houses.
The Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), Vienna’s vast “city for the dead” in Simmering, was founded in 1874 – complete with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish sections. Between 1908 and 1910, Max Hegele built the massive Dr. Karl Lueger Memorial Church, a counterpart to Otto Wagner’s art nouveau church at Steinhof. Also of architectural interest is the cemetery’s Main Gate, which was also built by Hegele, and the crematorium opposite designed by Clemens Holzmeister, which was built in the years 1922-23 on the grounds of the dilapidated Renaissance Neugebäude palace.
Tombs of Honor for Strauss et al
The so-called “Tombs of Honor” at the Central Cemetery are the equivalent of an Austrian Pantheon. The attendant at the Main Gate provides visitors with a detail map guiding them to the final resting places of such notable personages as Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss the Elder and Younger, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (memorial only), Franz Schubert, Arthur Schnitzler (Jewish Section), Curd Jürgens, and Helmut Qualtinger, who once said so fittingly: “In Vienna, you have to die first before they celebrate your life. But after that, you live long.” This does not necessarily apply to Austria’s famous pop-star Falco. However, he does also have a tomb of honor at the Central Cemetery. Once the Central Cemetery had opened, the suburban cemeteries of Josephinian times became redundant. They were gradually closed by city authorities during the “Red Vienna” era between the two World Wars. The remains of prominent citizens were transported to Simmering and the former cemeteries converted into parks. Today, only little remains at parks Märzpark, Schubertpark and Waldmüllerpark to remind you of their former role as sites of silence and reverence.
Mozart’s at the Romantic St. Marx Cemetary
St. Marx Cemetery has, however, retained its original character. This unique burial ground, the only Biedermeier cemetery in Vienna, still boasts an enchanting and highly romantic atmosphere. The ivy-clad gravestones, inscriptions commemorating industrialists, wealthy gentry and even the spouse of a sewage worker, long avenues and, importantly, the former mass grave in which Mozart was originally placed, have become a special place of pilgrimage for melancholics and romantics.
Also popular are the noble cemeteries of Hietzing, Grinzing, Döbling and Heiligenstadt, with their many graves of timeless elegance. And the Jewish Cemetery in Seegasse is truly something special. Over 400 years old, it was devastated by the Nazis and only reopened in 1984. Today, this burial ground is located not very tastefully in the inner courtyard of a pensioners’ home. By contrast, the Cemetery of the Nameless (Friedhof der Namenlosen) is located far from the center of the city on the banks of the Danube at Albern Harbor. It was here that all those who met with their maker in the waters of the Danube – suicides, accident victims and persons whose identity could not be established – are buried.
Imperial Burial Vault & Heart Crypt
The Habsburgs’ final resting place is yet another shining example of the morbid tendencies of the Austrians. Emperor Ferdinand III decreed that the Vault of the Church of the Capuchin Friars should serve as an official burial site of the Habsburgs. Today, 146 persons are entombed in 138 metal caskets, all of them – with one exception, a governess of Empress Maria Theresia – members of the Habsburg dynasty. The crypt centers around a large double sarcophagus decorated with life-size figures, containing the bodies of baroque empress Maria Theresia and her consort Franz Stephan of Lorraine. Joseph II rests much more modestly in a simple copper coffin. Emperor Franz Joseph was laid to rest next to Empress Sisi and Crown Prince Rudolf. His brother, Emperor Maximilian I, who was assassinated in Mexico, was given a place in a new vault which was added in the 1950s. And in 1989, Austria’s last empress, Zita, joined her relatives in the Imperial Burial Vault, where descendents of the Habsburg line can still be buried to this day.
Gruesome, but true: according to an unchanging ritual, the bodies of the Habsburgs were buried at three locations. The hearts were put into the “Heart Crypt” in the Church of the Augustinian Friars (Augustinerkirche), where today, they still fill 54 silver urns. The intestines were placed in copper urns in the Herzogsgruft (Ducal Crypt) of the Catacombs in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. And the “remaining remains” were laid to rest in the Imperial Burial Vault.
Catacombs & Plague Pits
As recently as the last century, guided tours through the Catacombs of St. Stephen’s Cathedral were seen as a (morbid) form of entertainment, being where the bones of thousands of Viennese had been placed over the centuries. They and the “plague pits” filled to the brim with bones are now closed off in ten underground charnel houses. Only in the Crypt of St. Michael’s Church can you still see thousands of bones, several hundred coffins and – due to the special atmospheric conditions – some excellently preserved mummies in equally well-preserved clothes.
Pathological Anatomy & Wax Figures
The Viennese may have always had closed bonds with death, but using bodies as objects of medical study was taboo for centuries. The enlightened spirit of Emperor Joseph II, however, found a remedy. In 1781, he founded a military hospital which provided the opportunity for doctors to treat the sick and, at the same time, engage in their studies. In 1784, the hospital was moved to Vienna’s General Hospital. The huge complex with its many inner courtyards, which still stands today, now houses numerous departments of the University of Vienna, a vibrant bar and restaurant scene and the famous Narrenturm (“Fool’s Tower”). Until 1860, this cylindrical building with five floors and 139 cells was where mentally ill individuals were held. The location still has its gruesome aspects. Today, the tower houses the Pathological Museum containing a huge number of exhibits of deformed body parts.
The opportunity of studying medicine and surgery was also provided at the Josephinum, which was founded in 1785. Joseph II charged the famous architect Isidor Canevale with the job of designing the school. In the baroque winged building, the emperor also had an extensive library installed. The centerpiece of the institute, however, was the wax figures used by doctors-to-be for their anatomical studies. The life-sized exhibits, complete with real hair, can be admired in elegant rosewood chests.
Death in Viennese Song
Death in Vienna is omnipresent, even in the most unlikely of places. For instance, you find it at wine taverns when the waves of sentimentality and wine-induced bliss are at their peak. Not cruel, not fear-inspiring, but as a part of reality; in fact, as a friend. This has always been so and will probably remain so forever. Lyrics alluding to death flow off the lips. Modern wine tavern musicians such as Neuwirth’s Extremschrammeln uphold this tradition, being not so much humorous (“Sell my clothes, I am going to heaven.”) but more serious (And when it is time to go and be buried, then harness my black horses and drive me there.”).
The Viennese thus demonstrate that, even in death, they have style.
• Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), 11th district, Simmeringer Hauptstrasse 234, phone +43-1-760 41; Nov-Feb 8 a.m.-5 p.m., March and Oct 7 a.m.-6 p.m., April-Sep 7 a.m.-7 p.m., May-August 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursdays.
• St. Marx Cemetery, 3rd district, Leberstrasse 6-8, Nov-Feb 8 a.m.-5 p.m., March and Oct 7 a.m.-6 p.m., April-Sep 7 a.m.-7 p.m., May-August 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursdays.
• Jewish Cemetery, 9th district, Seegasse 9-11 (entrance through pensioners’ home), phone +43-1-796 36 13, Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
• Imperial Burial Vault (Kaisergruft/Kapuzinergruft), 1st district, Neuer Markt/Tegetthoffstrasse, phone +43-1-512 68 53-16, open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (except November 1 & 2); www.kaisergruft.at
• Herzgruft (Heart Vault of the Habsburgs in the Church of the Augustinian Friars), 1st district, Augustinerstrasse 3, phone +43-1-533 70 99, guided tours by prior arrangement
• Josephinum (Museum of Medical History), 9th district, Währinger Strasse 25, phone +43-1-401 60-26 000, Mon, Tue 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Thu-Sun (except public holidays) 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
• Pathological-anatomical Museum, 9th district, Spitalgasse 2, 13th courtyard, University Campus, “Narrenturm”, phone +43-1-406 86 72; www.narrenturm.at
• Undertaker’s Museum (Bestattungsmuseum), 4th district, Goldeggasse 19, phone +43-1-501 95-0, by prior arrangement (guided tours only); www.bestattungsmuseum.at
by Hanne Egghardt