I don’t know about you, but I knock on wood at the sight of a funeral car or the slightest mention that someone has died. Whether it be peacefully or gruesomely.
Since moving to Vienna, I couldn’t help but wonder : What is this fascination the Viennese have around death? Mention it to any Viennese, and you’ll know then and there that you have just spoken to their souls.
All’s Well That Dies Well
When it comes to this otherwise dark and taboo topic, the Viennese lighten up. That is because “a beautiful corpse” – meaning “a great funeral” – was indicative of wealth, and dying well has a long tradition.
If you ask around among the older generation, people report that the Viennese would stand around the grave and express envy for the deceased. After all, they have achieved the highest goal in life – that of putting death behind them. A feat which, for the mourners, still lies ahead.
Forget Joe Black, Death is a Viennese
Remember the Brad Pitt movie Joe Black? No doubt, Hollywood has an idealized view on death. But then, so does Vienna. To quote a famous song by Georg Kreisler
“Death has to be a Viennese man, just like Love has to be a French woman. For who brings you on time to heaven’s door? Only a Viennese has a true feeling for it.”
The most important part of dying like a Viennese? It’s in their sense of humor.
Because let’s face it – how else is one to stand up to such a fundamental human fear? With a population of 1.8 million, Vienna counts 4 million dead souls in its cemeteries and crypts. And while you may not find a T-Shirt with “Greetings from Death Ville at the Danube”, you’re sure to find one with the slogan “The last car is always a station wagon.”
How charmingly macabre and how very Viennese!
The richness of the Viennese dialect in expressions around death is impressive. Roland Neuwirth’s “A real Viennese song” is a summation of euphemisms and word puns like “umegstandn” which, in a nutshell, both means the deceased is “rotting” and “has finally made it.”
Pomp and the Last Pajamas
Don’t be surprised if you see a tombstone with the family’s Mercedes Benz engraved on it. In this city, the grave is a status symbol.
“Stretching one’s shoes”, putting on “wooden pajamas” and making sure “the lid fits” – all of these expressions allude to the very last abode. For, dying like a Viennese, most likely means being buried in a coffin. Only one third chooses cremation.
Around 1785, when Kaiser Joseph II ordered the use of a reusable coffin with a trap door that opened to let bodies sink to the grave, the Viennese were not amused. The custom didn’t last long, but the coffin still exists – at the Funeral Museum.
A strange tradition till the end of the 19th century was to attach a cord with a bell to the hand of the deceased. In case they just seemed to be dead and were to wake up. The fear of being buried alive was very real among the Viennese.
Walk of Fame
Want to witness the Viennese pomp and circumstance around death? Then take a stroll through the Central Cemetery and the adjacent Funeral Museum. One way to get here is taking the Tramway 71 – another Viennese euphemism for dying.
What’s bound to surprise you: The Central Cemetery is as much a place for the living as it is for the dead. This huge park is open to joggers and bikers and refuge to a large number of wild animals like foxes, deer and field hamsters. Rollerblades and ball games are forbidden here though.
The most frequently visited graves are Beethoven’s and Falco’s. Other famous people buried beneath these grounds include the composers Straus, Schubert, and Brahms. Even though Mozart was buried in a mass grave in the St. Marx cemetery, there’s still a tombstone in his memory in the famous musicians’ section. Recent addition: singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens. Designed like a white grand piano, his tombstone is reminiscent of the artist’s trademark.
Rock ’em Dead
Viennese folksongs are often about life and death. And, as you’d expect, they’re often humorous. A cult hit landed Wolfgang Ambros with his mid-70s Austrian pop hymn “Long live the Central Cemetery”, which celebrates 100 years from the cemetery’s opening. The lyrics are hysterically funny – though pretty morbid. At the end of each strophe, a chorus sings “Happy Birthday!” to the place and all of its dead souls.
So, in case you haven’t heard, LA-based writer-mortician Caitlin Doughty is speaking at TEDxVienna this month. Mortician, that’s right. Which, after all this, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not in Vienna anyway.
Dying to hear that talk.
Image credits belong to the author.