Viennese fascination with death lives on

VIENNA, March 28 (Reuters Life!) - The elaborate Viennese funeral, with a grand casket and long procession of mourners, is mostly a thing of the past but a fascination with the subject of death lives on in the Austrian capital.

Vienna has one of the few museums dedicated to the subject as well as Europe’s second largest cemetery and a vast church crypt where dozens of Habsburgs, the ruling royal family for centuries, are laid to rest.

The idea of the “beautiful corpse” and of death as a part of life pervades popular bar songs, poetry and talk at funerals today. It dates from an influx of wealth in the 19th century, when the Austro-Hungarian empire was at its height and people paid heavily to make sure they would be remembered.

Many saved money while alive to ensure the send off was as grand as possible, a last chance to take the limelight.

“It was theatre for the people. No ticket needed,” says Wittigo Keller, curator of the museum, which is run by the city’s largest funeral company, Bestattung Wien.

Although steeped in tradition, the company is moving with the times. It has launched a cremation urn shaped like a soccer ball to sit alongside its more conventional offerings in time for the Euro 2008 championship being co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland in June.

But only 20 to 30 percent of Austria’s dead are cremated. “We have room for decades more in the cemetery,” said Keller.

One of the city’s great churches, the Karlskirche, is also a concert venue but performs nothing but Mozart’s Requiem during the summer, the music that was played at the composer’s own funeral in 1791.

Mozart, one of Austria’s most famous sons, looked forward with pleasure to the end. “Death is the key to our true happiness,” he wrote at the age of 31. He died at 35.

The love of funeral ceremony goes back at least to the 1780s.

Reformist Emperor Joseph II wanted people disposed of quickly in sacks for health reasons and so banned conventional coffin burials.

The result was an early recycling effort: a coffin with a lever that opened a trap door and released the corpse. This way, the coffin could be lifted out of the grave for reuse.

However, the people protested that they had been deprived of the pomp and ceremony and he dropped the measure a year later.

At the vast Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) on the edge of the city -- only Hamburg has a larger cemetery in Europe -- thousands of graves dating from the 1870s onwards are carefully tended. Viennese flock here on November 1 and 2 each year to mark All Saints’ and All Souls’ days.

Graves range from the romantic - Johann Strauss’s is draped with a maiden playing a golden harp, cherubs and vines - to the stark.

That of William Robert Jones, who was executed in Missouri in 2002 and whose wife came from Austria, is a rough granite slab etched with the marks a prisoner makes on a cell wall to count the days.

The cemetery was the subject of a 1970s pop song “Long Live the Zentralfriedhof” with the line:

“Now all the dead are celebrating

“Their first 100 years.”


The writings of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s had a great effect on the Viennese and led them to fear being accidentally buried alive. Funeral directors, then as now keen to please, developed a bell device that could be attached to the corpse in the coffin while it awaited interment.

“There were always false alarms because of changes in air pressure or mice. It would frighten the cemetery attendant,” said Keller at the museum where the device is on display.

One of Vienna’s top tourist attractions is the Kapuzinergruft (Capuchin Vault), the imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty where about 140 of them are entombed.

Fabulously detailed metal caskets are lined up, displaying the aesthetics of death. The sarcophagus of Charles VI, who died in 1740, features a death’s head wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Empire.

The coffin of Crown Prince Rudolph -- Omar Sharif played him in the 1968 film “Mayerling” -- recalls his tragic death in 1889 in disputed circumstances. A fading red rose lay in front of the metal casket on a recent visit.

One of the most bizarre of modern Viennese funerals was that of Austrian rock musician Falco, who died in a road accident in 1998. “All his rocker friends came in leather, an image of Falco between Batman and angels on the coffin and a convoy of Harley Davidsons behind,” says Keller at the funeral museum.

The museum has a coffin that visitors are invited to try for size. “They find it better than lying on the sofa,” said Keller.

Editing by Paul Casciato