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Posts tagged ‘Death’

CEMETERY OF THE NAMELESS

Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep, I am a thousand winds that blow, … the diamond glints on snow,… the sun on ripened grain,… the gentle autumn rain,… the morning’s hush, … the swift uplifting rush, Of quiet birds in circled flight,… the soft stars that shine at night. – Mary Elizabeth Frye, Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep

A couple evenings ago, a good friend and I met up for dinner after work at a little Vietnamese restaurant at Karlsplatz. The white-shirted, black bow-tied Vietnamese waiter interrupted us. “Sorry, Jennifer, your table by the window will be ready soon.” I stopped mid-sentence. We already had a table. True, wedged by the door, not very gemütlich, but nevertheless one of the rare tables in the beloved restaurant. Not only had my friend apparently snagged us the best seat in the house, but she was obviously on a first-name basis with the man wielding the ultimate power to determine all the diners’ fates. “Jennifer?”

Graves at Cemetery of the Nameless

Graves at Cemetery of the Nameless

There’s something comforting about people knowing your name. I venture even if you end up with some unfortunate name like Engelbert Humperdinck, you get used to your name, and it grows on you. And can there be any sound sweeter than that special someone whispering your name in the dark?

Perhaps that’s part of the tragedy of the picturesque little plots resting under the shady elms along the bank of the Danube – that rather than names, towering over the overgrown mounds of day lilies are crosses bearing inscriptions of dates, male or female and “Nameless” or “Unknown.”

I was a young child when I first visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC. And even at that tender age, I distinctly remember the profound sadness that struck me that someone had left this world, someone who had laughed, and cried and loved and no one knew they had gone. Or perhaps that they had even lived. No one to shoulder a pack on Memorial Day bearing his name in remembrance of him.

Chapel of the Resurrection at the Cemetery of the Nameless in Vienna

Chapel of the Resurrection at the Cemetery of the Nameless in Vienna

I had long heard of and wanted to visit the Cemetery of the Nameless. Once, years ago, at the prospect of soon returning to the States, I actually ventured on a bus that I believed would take me there. I ended up spending the day somewhere completely different. A good day. But not where I meant to go.

So this past weekend, on a Sunday drive back from wine country, the after-rain sun illuminating the world in a friendly glow of promise, with nothing but the road and a lust for life, I punched the “Friedhof der Namenlosen” address into the “Navi.” Not such an easy task since Google refused to betray the address. How Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy managed to find it before sunrise is beyond me. But I’ve always liked a challenge.

Peculiar Chicken Rabbit Grave at the Cemetery of the Nameless

Peculiar Chicken Rabbit Grave at the Cemetery of the Nameless

So I entered the address to the Gasthaus zum Friedhof der Namenlosen (the restaurant with the same name that I ventured would be close by): Albern 54, 1110 Vienna. Despite the Navi, we still almost missed the turn and found ourselves on back roads by the Danube seaport surrounded by menacingly tall buildings with tiny windows, mammoth-sized cranes, concrete silo structures and unattended weeds and overgrowth. In Anytown America, this would have been just another Miracle Mile back alley but in a country where the guys at the dump yard adorn their break-time containers with flower boxes, this placed seemed eerie. And the perfect place to dump a body. Or two. Or a few hundred.

And that’s exactly what the Danube had done here for decades. On the shore of current kilometer 1918, the Danube washed up the remains of Viennese who had grown “life tired” (Lebensmüde) and ended their lives in her cold wet womb.

Entrance Wall Cemetery of the Nameless

Entrance Wall Cemetery of the Nameless

The old cemetery (1840 – 1900) existed on the opposite shore side and the 478 nameless souls who rest there are now only memorialized by a cross. The flow of the Danube flooded the original cemetery so often that in 1900 Vienna moved the cemetery to an area behind a high water dam to where it now stands today. In 1935 the tiny Resurrection Chapel was erected. In 1940 the last burials took place here. Changes in the Danube current stopped the bodies from washing up to shore here years ago and those who get “life tired” nowadays are buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Of the 104 accidental, self-induced and forced victims of drownings buried in the Cemetery of the Nameless, only 43 have been identified – 61 remain nameless.

Rare Sign for the Cemetery of the Nameless

Rare Sign for the Cemetery of the Nameless

As you stroll through the tiny garden of graves, one particular plot is bound to catch your eye with a weathered stuffed elephant and bright orange ribbons tied to his cross: “Here lies Wilhelm Töhn. Drowned by another on June 1, 1904 at age 11.”

But little Willy is not alone. The candles, flowers, toys and stuffed animals adorning many of the graves are testament that perhaps those who died here will forever remain unknown, but they will never be forgotten. The Worker-Fisher-Club (Arbeiter-Fischer-Verein) makes sure of that. Every year, on the afternoon of the first Sunday after All Saint’s Day (November 1), they build a raft and decorate it with wreathes, flowers and a symbolic gravestone with burning candles and send it off down the Danube in remembrance of the desperate souls who tried to find a final peace forsaken them in life.

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Poem on the wall of the Cemetery

Cemetery of the Nameless Grave marked "Unknown"

Cemetery of the Nameless Grave marked “Unknown”

Deep in the shade of old elm trees
Crosses gaze here upon gloomy
bank edges
Though no epitaphs
share who sleeps beneath
the cool sand

So silent in the wide eyes
Even the Danube’s
blue surges are held back
For those who sleep here together
who the floods washed ashore
Silent and lonely

All who join together here
Driven by desperation into the cold
Womb of the waves
So the crosses loom
Like the cross that they carried
“Nameless.”

Count von Wickenburg (rough translation: KC Blau)

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Saints, Souls, Death and the Viennese – 1 Nov Allerheiligen

Angel Statue in St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna

Angel Statue in St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna

Der Tod muss ein Wiener sein…” (Death must be Viennese)
(Der Tod: Das muss ein Wiener sein , song title of 1969 song by Georg Kreisler)

On All Saints’ Day (November 1)  and All Souls’ Day (November 2) the Viennese pilgrim to the cemeteries to light candles and pray for those who have passed (sometimes hoping to help them out of purgatory (or in German Fegefeuer sweeping fire)).

You don’t have to be here long to recognize that the Viennese have a special relationship with death. “Ein schönen Leich” (a beautiful corpse/ funeral) is as Viennese as the folk songs that cheerfully, acceptingly, ironically lament the inevitable fate of every human. And no blog about Vienna would be truly complete without mentioning death.

YOU CAN RING MY BELL , RING MY BELL…

THE FUNERAL MUSEUM OF VIENNA (Bestattungsmuseum)

For years this museum was listed as one of Vienna’s fun sites to see as in, “Hey, after we visit the Fool’s Tower (Narrenturm), let’s hit the Funeral Museum! Won’t that be fun!” Well, it was indeed interesting but unfortunately, the museum is closed until its reopening in September 2014 at Vienna’s Central Cemetery – a very fitting new home.

Church of Saint Charles Borromew in VIenna's Central Cemetery

Church of Saint Charles Borromew in Vienna’s Central Cemetery

An interactive site at the museum was a bell with a long string attached to corpses in coffins. If someone was buried alive, he or she could theoretically ring the bell signaling the heroic funeral workers to spring to the rescue. The reality was, however, that due to postmortem spasms and unfortunate corpse positions, the bells rang non-stop and the heroic funeral workers not-so-heroically ignored them.

Which is probably why an Austrian playwright who was sometimes dubbed the “Austrian Shakespeare”, Johann Nestroy, feared being buried alive so much that he spent much of his last will and testament giving very specific instructions about measures he wanted taken to prevent this possibility. “The only thing I fear about death, is the idea that I could possibly be buried alive.” (January 31, 1861) Nestroy was generally a pretty funny guy but it seems he took being buried alive very seriously.

CEMETERY OF THE NAMELESS (Friedhof der Namenlosen)

“The goal of all life is death.”  – Sigmund Freud

Tombstone "Wiedersehen" in St. Maarx Cemetery Vienna

Tombstone “Wiedersehen” in St. Marx Cemetery Vienna

Vienna boasts over 40 Roman-Catholic cemeteries but those don’t do much good for the “weary of lifers” (Lebensmüde) who have plunged to their untimely deaths into the murky waters of the Danube.  For many of those and others who have died namelessly and whose bodies have washed ashore, there’s the Cemetery of the Nameless. Most of the graves state simply “Unknown” or “Nameless.” Every year in November, the cemetery honors those who have never been recovered and whose remains still grace the Danube floor by launching a wreath down the the Danube towards the Black Sea. This year the ceremony will take place on Sunday, November 10, at 2 pm – gathering at the restaurant by the cemetery

VIENNESE LOVE STATUS EVEN IN DEATH

Helmut Qualtinger Grave in Central Cemetery in Vienna

The honor grave of Austrian musical, theater and comedic legend, Helmut Qualtinger, at Central Cemetery in Vienna

Honorary graves were created in the Central Cemetery to up the prestige of the cemetery in the late 1800s a few years after the cemetery’s creation. Viennese are notorious for their initial skepticism to all that is new and in a brilliant 19th century PR move to increase the new cemetery’s popularity, the city of Vienna moved  most of its prominent dead to “Honor Graves.” These include Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert – graves still popular today. Vienna grants the selected few Honor Graves for the life of the cemetery and assumes the costs for caring for the graves. In an interview in Austrian National Television, (ORF – link below) a reporter asks the man in charge of the grave honor what one has to do get an Honor Grave. His response? “Well, it’s not a very desirable achievement since the first thing you have to do is die.”

BUT DEATH MAKES NO DISTINCTIONS AND THREE TIMES A CHARM – EVEN WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (July 2011, Habsburg and the last Austrian royal funeral)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Grave at St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna

Mozart’s Grave in St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna

“Death as the true best friend of man.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Since 1633, Austrian royalty has been buried in the Imperial Crypt under the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Some body parts, however, such as the hearts and intestines are buried elsewhere. Currently over 145 members of the House of Habsburg have their last resting place in the Imperial Crypt. When Otto von Habsburg passed in July 2011, a traditional royal funeral was held with all the pomp and circumstance and is said to be the last time an Austrian royal will ever be buried in the Imperial Crypt.

Open Sesame – watch the link above (July 2011) and here’s what you’re witnessing:

Schubert's Tombstone at the Central Cemetery in Vienna

Schubert’s Tombstone at the Central Cemetery in Vienna

A Herald in a black suit leads the casket procession through the heart of old Vienna up to the Capuchin Church. The Herald knocks upon the iron gates with his long black cane. A Capuchin monk, whose brethren have held watch over the crypt since the 1600s, asks: “Who demands entry?”

After hundreds of years, you would think someone would have written down the right answer but nein. In attempts one and two, the Herald iterates an exhausting list of the the dead royal’s titles and accomplishments. Nearly three whole minutes. But the monks, being monks, are stoic and patient and simply respond, “Don’t know ’em.” (In all fairness to the monks, this seems a very benevolent response. After almost 4 centuries of conducting this ritual, I’d be a bit more testy with such slow students. Or maybe I’d paint a cheat sheet on the iron gate.)

Finally, upon the third attempt, eureka. The Herald responds, “Otto, a sinful mortal.”

Bingo! The gates open and the monks respond: “So then come inside.” (Monkese for, “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”)

ST. MARX CEMETERY

“The biggest effort in life is not getting accustomed to death.” – Elias Canetti

Angel on Tombstone at St. Marx's Cemetery

Angel on Tombstone at St. Marx’s Cemetery

I had never been to St. Marx and always wanted to go so this past weekend I went. Finally I managed to visit the place where Mozart’s bones are said to be buried somewhere in a mass grave. And I was not disappointed. Again, just when I thought I knew every single one of her little secrets, Vienna sprung a beauty on me. A wonderful surprise and a trip I highly recommend. I love this place. (Take bus 74A from the road that passes in front of Wien Mitte/ Landstrasse (on the U4 and U3 lines) to the station Hofmannsthalgasse – just a short hop and skip from there.)

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Central Cemetery, Vienna, one of the biggest cemetery's in all of Europe

Central Cemetery, Vienna, one of the biggest cemetery’s in all of Europe

Cross marking Austrian Artist, Max Weiler's burial place, Central Cemetery

Cross marking Austrian Artist, Max Weiler’s burial place, Central Cemetery

Tombstone of Johannes Brahms in Vienna's Central Cemetery

Tombstone of Johannes Brahms in Vienna’s Central Cemetery

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