Halloween – Hello Wien! The veneration of the dead in Austria
The Viennese singer songwriter Georg Kreisler already sang about it. “Death, he must be a Viennese!” For the Viennese have a very special relationship with death. This morbid nature is particularly noticeable on All Saints’ Day.
Both Halloween as well as All Saints’ Day go back to the same pagan customs. It is said that on the night of October 31st, to the 1st of November, the gates between the world of the living and the world of the deceased is wide open and that in this time a ghost can easily get lost in the world of the living. Why in English-speaking countries people dress up in ghoulish costumes in order to protect themselves from evil spirits, in Austria the dead are commemorated in a more devotional way. Traditionally with an extended walk over a cemetery and lighting a candle at the graves of the deceased family members. When the many red lights flicker in the cemeteries, it seems almost romantic. Yes, the Viennese and death, are having almost a love affair with each other.
There is no lack of many eerily beautiful cemeteries and burial places in Vienna. The largest cemetery of Austria is the Central Cemetery of Vienna (Wiener Zentralfriedhof). It is not only the last resting place for many people, but there are also beautiful eye catching art nouveau buildings. Concerning the area, the cemetery of Hamburg is the largest cemetery in Europe. But concerning the “inhabitants” the Central Cemetery of Vienna is much bigger as there are about 3 Mio. people buried in this “City of the Dead”. 20.000 burials are taking place on an average every year.
In Vienna, songs and monuments are dedicated to death and at the end of it all, every Viennese wants to be a “beautiful corpse”. At least, that’s what already Charles VI., father of Mary Theresa demanded on his deathbed. How grandiose death was celebrated in the imperial empire, that can be admired at the artistically designed sarcophagi of the Habsburg family in the Capuchin Crypt. A very special and central masterpiece of the crypt is the lovingly designed double sarcophagus of Maria Theresia and her husband Franz Stephan of Lorraine. Maria Theresia supervised the work on personally, and so the couple is represented facing each other in all eternity. And yet, in the gloomy vault beneath the Capuchin church, it is a little eerie, and every time I am alone in the crypt, I am quite scared.
And if you should really have a soft spot for the uncanny, a visit to the crypt of the Michaela Church is highly recommended. This is probably the most morbid place in Vienna. Because of the prevailing air conditions, the bodies are naturally mummified. And since the coffins are sometimes wide open, you can look directly into the face of the mummified ladies and gentlemen.
How the veneration of the dead and burial ceremonies have changed over the centuries, is explained in a reverent way at the Bestattungsmuseum (Burial Museum) at the Central Cemetery of Vienna. Not to be missed of course in this museum is a very typical Viennese curiosity: the reusable josephinian coffin with a trap door. And the merchandising products of the Burial Museum like a USB stick in the shape of a little coffin or a cover for a pack of cigarettes with the writing on it “smoking saves working places” prove that in Vienna also always see the funny side of death. It makes the inevitable more endurable.
If you want to learn more about the relationship between the Viennese and death we recommend our tour in the Capuchin Crypt and our tour across the Central Cemetery.