As we enter or leave this world, there are those seldom-thanked individuals that accompany us. We spoke to people who think and talk about living and dying every day
Stephansdom Tour Guide
When we entered the Stephansdom early on a Monday afternoon, the place was crammed, as usual – with both the living and the dead. On any given day, the cathedral is one of the most frequented tourist sights in Vienna. In the 1700s, it was also popular – but as a burial site. However, by 1783, the catacombs were so full up, and the stink of the 11,000 rotting corpses so overpowering, that the city had to stop using it as a final resting place.
Such are the facts shared by Florian Bauchinger, a jovial and enthusiastic tour guide, as he showed us around the dark, dank bowels of the revered historical site.
He said tourists “mostly come to see the bones,” which were taken out of their coffins and piled up in order to save space back in the 18th century. The bones are so popular that they have sometimes been nabbed as souvenirs by overeager visitors. “We often receive packages returning the missing bones – usually out of a bad conscience,” said Bauchinger, who studied Roman Catholic theology.
But not everyone relishes the macabre atmosphere and the close proximity to death. That’s when the 34-year-old’s seven years of experience as a tour guide comes in handy.
“Some people get a bit nervous because these days we like to distance ourselves from death,” said Bauchinger. “In the past, people had short life spans and entire generations lived and died in the same household. We all have the same future and death is simply inevitable, so why should we let our fear of death put a damper on life?”
He reminded us of a sign at the entrance of the catacombs that reads “As you are, we once were; as we are, so shall you be.” We had a moment to reflect on the sentiment before the next crowd came through and we had to let Bauchinger get back to work.
It’s important that we believe in what we are explaining. This whole building is a symbol of faith, it is faith built into stone.