Some Viennese may play down any special relationship with death. But, then again, it’s probably better not to take any chances…

It was a stunningly beautiful summer’s day on July 16, 2011, for the final farewell to Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary. And for this day of days, Vienna had pulled out all the stops. By two o’clock, an hour before the ceremony, well-dressed crowds had amassed in front of St. Stephen’s, while on a huge video screen, official guests filed into the cathedral, past flags, standards, and uniforms from all corners of the former monarchy. There were magnificent Hungarian, Czech and Croatian regiments and colorful Home Guards of the Federal States, all in ancient regalia still miraculously intact, shouldering the tasseled banners of feudal loyalty.

Once again, Vienna had become the showplace for one of Austria’s time-honored rituals:  a schene Leich, a beautiful corpse – the majestic send-off to one’s eternal reward, as promised by the country’s Catholic faith.

In the days of the Empire, state funerals were popular public spectacles, filled with pomp and protocol, often with a magnificent horse-drawn funeral catafalque followed by a procession of clerics and mourners swathed in a cloud of incense.  For soldiers and aristocrats, there might be an honor guard and a uniformed Kapelle of wind and brass musicians intoning Chopin’s haunting funeral dirge, while tradesmen might hire a couple of singers from the State Opera to sing at the graveside. Crowds would line the streets like extras in this theater of death, for a vicarious frisson, and perhaps a little reassurance that the Church might, in the end, actually live up to the deal.

The Viennese attention and sympathy for the imperial family culminated in their elaborate funerals – particularly visible at mortuary of the last Empress Zita in 1989. © Franz Hausner
The Viennese attention and sympathy for the imperial family culminated in their elaborate funerals – particularly visible at mortuary of the last Empress Zita in 1989. // © Franz Hausner

That day in 2011, there was also a sense of being a witness to history:  By tradition, a true schene Leich should be imperial – so this would be the very last. Several people standing nearby spoke of the only other royal funeral in memory, for Empress Zita, Otto’s mother, who died in 1989 at the age of 96. Wife of the last emperor, Kaiser Karl, who died in 1922, Zita never formally gave up her crown and true to his memory, mourned him in exile for another six decades.  Now that had been a schene Leich!  With a full orchestra and choir in Stephansdom performing Mozart’s Requiem and the Vienna Boys Choir singing in the Capuchin Church, Cardinal König had prayed for “our sister, the Empress Zita,’’ while outside, The New York Times reported, protesters held up banners reading “The Empire is Dead, The Republic Lives,” and scattered leaflets noting that the monarchy had not been all “good old days.”

The desire to be a schene Leich drives a passion for pompous funerals. Nowhere is this more visible than at the Trauerfeier of the once-ruling Habsburg Family. Otto von Habsburg’s ceremony in 2011 gave him a truly Imperial send-off. © Andreas Pessenlehner (APA)
The desire to be a schene Leich drives a passion for pompous funerals. Nowhere is this more visible than at the Trauerfeier of the once-ruling Habsburg Family. Otto von Habsburg’s ceremony in 2011 gave him a truly Imperial send-off. // © Andreas Pessenlehner (APA)

For all the splendor, Otto’s funeral, too, was full of contradictions for modern Austria’s social democracy, where aristocratic titles had been abolished in 1919. While there was much to honor in Otto himself – a man who had dedicated his long life to a pan-European ideal of bringing the continent, if not the empire, back together – it was awkward, and on the huge screen on Stephansplatz, Chancellor Werner Faymann and President Heinz Fischer could be seen sitting stony-faced as the congregation inside and out raised full-throated voices in the old Imperial Hymn.

But Austrians have a talent for ambiguity, and the leaders had made their peace with the occasion.  In true Viennese fashion, and punctual to the minute, Otto’s coffin appeared at the portals of Stephansdom on the shoulders of Tyrolian guards, and was carried out of the cathedral, as the great Pummerin sounded in the bell tower.  From there, it was loaded onto a dolly – not the ornate black catafalque dusted off from the Imperial Carriage Museum for Zita – and accompanied on foot by clerics, family and invited guests, and the magnificence of the uniformed traditions from across the former crown lands.

“It is this desire for an elaborate staging of grief,” wrote Vienna-based journalist Elisalex Henckel, “a blend of major and minor tonalities so typical of their music, that gives the Viennese the reputation of fearing death less than the rest of the world.”

Moving the graves

In the last decades of the 19th century, elaborate funerals became an obsession that prompted many to set money aside in special savings accounts to ensure their send-off was as grand as possible. And there were undertakers aplenty to help them spend it. By 1900, more than 80 private funeral companies competed for the business in any of the city’s 52 suburban cemeteries. This was not a one-time expense. Here, different from the Anglo-Saxon world, burial plots were and are leased, so that without money to back it up, a grave in a desirable location might be dug up and repossessed by a new occupant whose family is prepared to keep up with the payments. A schene Leich can be an expensive luxury.

So today, while many Viennese still save for a full burial (and join a Sterbeverein, a “death association,” to assure healthy attendance), there has been a noticeable shift toward “natural burial,” where a loved one’s remains can be returned to the soil or cast to the four winds. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Until the mid 1700s, the Viennese were buried in neighborhood churchyards in the 1st district, in the shadow of Stephansdom, the Ruprechts- or Peters-kirche, spaces also “freed” for public gatherings and trade. But with an improved understanding of infection in the wake of the Great Plague of Vienna (1679) that took some 76,000 lives, the first “suburban” cemetery was laid out just west of the city gate at Schottentor, now the Altes AKH (Old Central Hospital) and campus of the University of Vienna.  In the 18th century, Emperor Joseph II closed the cemeteries inside the Gürtel, converting the spaces into public buildings and parks. In their place, he established five community cemeteries, the Hundsturmer, Matzleinsdorfer, Währinger, Schmelzer and Sankt Marx, the last still in active use.

With the opening of the new Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) in 1874  in the 11th District, some of these graves were moved again, and special areas were set up for Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox and smaller religious communities.

”In Vienna you have to die to really live it up. But then you live for a long time,” as Austria’s legendary actor Helmut Qualtinger quipped in 1986. This is the elaborate gravestone of Mozart (who never got a funeral). © Österreich Werbung
”In Vienna you have to die to really live it up. But then you live for a long time,” as Austria’s legendary actor Helmut Qualtinger quipped in 1986. This is the elaborate gravestone of Mozart (who never got a funeral). // © Österreich Werbung

This vast, magnificent cemetery – which the Viennese joke is “half the size of Zürich, but twice as much fun!” – is a favorite of tourists eager to pay homage at the graves of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms, Antonio Salieri, Johann Strauss Jr. or Arnold Schoenberg.  Other famous graves include Austrian playwrights Emanuel Schikaneder (Mozart’s lyricist), Johann Nestroy and Arthur Schnitzler, satirist Karl Kraus, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, philosopher Egon Friedell and architect Alfred Loos.

Most people still reach the cemetery by the 71 tram from Schwarzenberplatz. But take note: When you hear that someone “has taken the 71” (“Er hat den 71er genommen”), don’t expect him to be back anytime soon.

Death the deliverer

In imperial Vienna, closeness to death was simply a fact of life. In the 19th century alone, Austria was involved in nine major wars and, with primitive hygiene, the wounded rarely survived. In the overcrowded city, families lived in small apartments where people were often forced to sleep in shifts. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and typhoid were rampant as was childbed fever, since doctors often went from mother to mother without washing their hands. Infant mortality rates, too, were extremely high – between 25 and 30 percent, according to one study – and an early death was more likely than not, with an average life expectancy in 1900 of about 38 years.

“So Death was a constant companion,” says cabarettist Antonia Lersch, whose annual evening Tot in Wien (Dead in Vienna) at Theater L.E.O. was a highlight for many years.

But in Vienna, the anxiety was turned on its head, and dying, rather than feared, was seen as deliverance, opening the way to a more beautiful afterlife. Death became a trusted ally.

In this vein, Mozart wrote to his ailing father in a famous letter of April 4, 1787:  “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of humankind, that his image is no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling.”

Whether or not poor Leopold actually felt consoled has been lost to history.

Antonia Lersch celebrates his heritage today at her Tot in Wien evenings, along with many other insights into the Viennese obsession with death. © Maria Frodl
Antonia Lersch celebrates his heritage today at her Tot in Wien evenings, along with many other insights into the Viennese obsession with death. // © Maria Frodl

But all this may help explain the high suicide rates in Vienna and Austria throughout the 19th century – one for every 6,000 people, a figure which doubled in the years leading up to The Great War and in the 1930s, including, for example, three brothers of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Following WWII, high rates continued at about 1 percent of the population, declining only at the Millennium.

“So it’s hardly surprising that the Viennese are absorbed with these topics,” Lersch continued, and that they should develop a version of the afterlife that was worth dying for. “So they turn Paradise into a giant Heuriger (wine tavern),” she added, “full of wonderful singing and playing, eating, drinking, and doing a little business on the side.” -Especially when they’ve had a few, the Viennese like to flirt with Death, singing cheerfully at the Heuriger of their coming demise.

The Wienerlieder

There are few cities, great or small, where music and song are as much a part of daily life as they are in Vienna. Perhaps it was the convergence of cultures of the old empire – where song may have helped bridge the barriers of language and culture – that nurtured the Wienerlieder. Certainly both Hungarian temperament and Slavic melancholy have played a role. Or maybe it was simply the chronically overcast sky.

“The everyday reality of the present (or of any present!) is gray enough that you need something to help you escape from it from time to time,” wrote Stasi Lohr, the famed chronicler of Wienerlieder – the Viennese songs of the Heuriger, the cabaret and the street. In Vienna, this escape is most often into the past, where experience becomes an idealized memory. “Even suffering, when reflected upon, can be transformed into a bit of happiness.

“So, when a song goes: ‘Things will never be as beautiful as they once were, it also means, ‘as beautiful as they could have been’ – because it never actually was.  But,” Lohr adds, “what difference does that make?”  This transfiguration of reality in retrospect is the essence of the Wienerlied.

Amidst the wit and nostalgia, though, the darker side of these songs often gets overlooked. “What many don’t realize is that the ironic treatment of a shabby working class life, the comic sentimentalizing of the anxieties of gentile poverty, masked ugly situations that were very real,” Lersch said. “Tragedies in the lives of ordinary people permeate songs like Die Spittelberger Huren (The Whores of Spittelberg). Think of it: nobility sitting there listing who might have infected the prostitutes. Washerwomen, working day in, day out, who sold themselves to make enough to live on. Orphan boys and street urchins who couldn’t earn a crust of bread. At that time, this was meant very seriously, as was the message from the church that in another life, things would be better.” Death the Deliverer.

Death must be Viennese

Georg Kreisler was famous for his many songs dedicated to death, all screamingly funny.
Georg Kreisler was famous for his many songs dedicated to death, all screamingly funny.

For her Tot in Wien evenings, Lersch usually begins with Georg Kreisler, a cabaret legend of 1950s Vienna, and the favorite, “Der Tod, das muss ein Wiener sein” (“Death must surely be a Viennese”) – as only someone from Vienna could be counted on to get you to the gates of heaven on time. Then might come “Oh du lieber Augustin,” the tinkling folk melody about a street musician in the time of the Great Plague who, having drunk himself into a stupor, fell into a pit with the bodies of the dead. But thoroughly pickled, he emerged unscathed and uninfected, to sing another day.

Some other night, a visit to the Stadtheuriger -Gigerl might turn up Ingomar Kmentt, a retired journalist turned Heuriger musician, singing Wienerlieder for tips to the strumming of a guitar.  You’ve had a tough week? Just remember, he sings, “Erst wann’s aus wird sein…” – “Only when it’s all over, will it come to be” – that is, death, or perhaps, immortal life.

When you talk to locals today, they may well deny that the Viennese have any special relationship with death, dismissing it all as a bit of altwiener Kitsch hyped by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, as irritating as the tour buses in Grinzing, or the enduring popularity of The Sound of Music.  Things are different now, they may tell you, with most people choosing
cremation to save on the costs of an expensive coffin and the lease of a cemetery plot, or to have their
remains pressed into a one-carat diamond, all options confirmed by the City’s website.

Lersch disagrees. While so much has become secularized, baptisms, weddings and funerals still matter.  “On these rare occasions, these alle heiligen Zeiten,” she says, “the Viennese still want the Church to be part of it, [as in,]: ‘Who knows? There might just be something to it…’ ”

And so it is that each year, as All Saints’ Day approaches, the tall, all-weather votive candles again fill the supermarket check-out areas next to piles of the 5-kilo sacks of dark, grave-site garden soil. And the Wiener Linien once again pump up the service on the 71 tram.