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Cult of the Dead Vienna

The Viennese concern themselves with death quite happily during their lifetime: they sing about it, play with it and build monuments to it. The cult of the dead is a slightly macabre yet gleeful manifestation and a strategically clever move against the finiteness of life.

 © Österreich Werbung/Muhr

Vienna Zentralfriedhof

Vienna Zentralfriedhof on the map
Death is the last festival of life and, sad though it is, should be celebrated with utmost dignity. No more so than in the Zentralfriedhof (central cemetery), where the city of Vienna buried several famous residents, not least Beethoven and Schubert, laying the foundation stone for one of the grandest cemeteries anywhere. Its most important edifices, main gates, laying-out rooms, waiting room and central church are all fine examples of Jugendstil.

Forgotten and mysterious, the Jewish Cemetry hides behind its brick wall in Döbling. Along with St. Marx it is one of two cemeteries preserved from the Biedermeier period. It can only be visited on a guided tour, which explains the significance of the Jewish population in the 19th century and their determination to assimilate. Crypt chapels are decorated with classicist floral ornamentation while graves of Turkish Jews are inspired by the orient, some engraved with extracts from the Koran.

The Burial Museum is another unusual attraction in Vienna. There is an exhibition of coffin designs through the ages. It includes the money-saving, re-usable Josephine coffin, which remained on the surface; there was a discreet opening in its base through which the corpse fell into a grave. There are also examples of more individual coffins which were ordered while the future inhabitant was in good health, beautifully decorated and used as a piece of furniture until death!

St Augustine's Church is home to one of the most impressive tombs in Vienna: The touching memorial to Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria sculpted by Antonio Canova in white marble depicts a group of mourners watched over by angels as they enter a pyramid vault. It captures the pain of loss of the favourite daughter of Empress Maria Theresia and most loved wife in a marriage which was a true love match.

Death shows a very different face in the catacombs of nearby St. Michael's Church: there are mummified corpses, preserved for more than 300 years by the climatic conditions and constant temperatures in the crypt. You can see them in decorated open coffins, arms folded across their chest, some still in their burial finery. There are also year round guided tours of the St. Stephen's Cathedral catacombs. Each tour lasts around 30 minutes.

The Imperial Crypt below the Capuchin Church has been the principal place of entombment for members of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633. The bodies of 145 royal family members are entombed here, the most notable memorial being that of Empress Maria Theresia, the only female ruler of the house of Habsburg. Together with her husband who is interred with her, she sits against a cushion, her legs outstretched and her hand playing with a sword.

For all its pomp, death is inevitable, and because one cannot push it to one side in this, the city of Sigmund Freud, one celebrates it. It is immortalised in many catchy Viennese songs, both traditional and modern - perhaps in the hope that death will spare you when it should be your turn.

Traditions in Austria

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