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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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IT GETS BETTER – PAPAGENO WILL TELL YOU

“Stop! …Be Smart! You only live once!” – Mozart, The Magic Flute.

In September 2010, a teenage boy who was bullied at school for being homosexual took his own life. Amidst inconceivably cruel messages of continued bullying and belated outreaches of sorrow and understanding, a stranger wrote on his memorable page, “I wish I would have known you so I could have told you: It gets better, RIP.” Struck by the obvious desperation of this young man, US advice columnist, podcaster and gay rights activist, Dan Savage, started the It Gets Better Project with his partner, Terry Miller, to bring messages of encouragement directly to the youth at risk through internet videos of those who have gone through similar situations while growing up but persevered.

Yesterday evening, the US embassy, It Gets Better Austria (Es wird Besser, Österreich) along with the Vienna Anti-discrimination for Same Sex and Transgender People held a panel discussion at the Vienna Amerikahaus entitled, “Building Bridges to Make it Better.” Dan and Terry sat on the panel and shared their own experiences working as activists to help young people at risk.

Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, of the University of Vienna Medical School, and an expert on suicide, talked extensively about the challenges of the media in dealing with these heartbreaking incidents. Contrary to reports about other diseases such as heart disease,  sensational reporting on teen suicides can actually cause an increase in suicides and suicidality. Professionals have dubbed this phenomena the Werther Effect, after the lovelorn protagonist in Goethe’s 1774 novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

Werther loves Lotte but she is committed to Albert. Unable to bear the pain of such all-consuming passion unrealized, the young man commits suicide.  The book is believed to have caused young men throughout Europe to not only emulate Werther in they way they dressed but also his desperate end. The book is believed to have triggered a chain of the first recorded “copycat” suicides.

To combat this negative trend, the author Christoph Nicolai published a satiric version of the novel, in which Albert gets wind of the young man’s intentions and fills Werther’s pistol with chicken blood. The hero’s suicide attempt fails and he ends up getting over Lotte and living a happy and productive life. Goethe, was not amused, but for literary reasons, not social. Due to the seemingly contagious effect of suicides, medical professionals work together with press organizations to draft media recommendations on best practice standards for suicide reporting. Studies suggest that there is a right way to approach the subject to achieve the “Papageno Effect.”

In Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute”, the bird catcher, Papageno, in utter despair from losing his love, Papagena, decides to hang himself. He chooses his tree and bids the deceitful world farewell. But then he sings, “If anyone wants to love or pity me before I hang myself, just call out to me, yes or no.” Silence. Nevertheless, he looks and waits, and then decides to count to three, just in case. One. Looks around. Two. Looks around. Three. Looks around. Then so be it. And at that moment, three youths rush onto stage calling, “Stop, Papageno. Be smart! You only live once …” But he argues and they tell him to ring his bell. Lo and Behold, his lady appears and happiness ensues. In other words, sometimes it just takes an interruption to the darkness – a sign of hope — encouraging words that things will get better. And eventually, they do.

Terry Miller and Dan Savage of It Gets Better

Terry Miller and Dan Savage in Vienna, Austria, May 2015 talking about their initiative, “It Gets Better”

Dan and Terry’s heart-felt talk was incredibly sincere. Terry talked about his return to his old high school – a place he associated with painful memories of bullying and torment. But his school had evolved and during the return visit, he received a public apology from the director for how he had been treated so many years before.

Nothing can undo the pain and scars that bullying can inflict on a young person, but it’s good to know that there’s hope. And people who’ve also ventured through the dark tunnel to discover that there is light on the opposite side. Too many young people in this world are denied the unconditional love they deserve and it’s good to know there’s a place they can go to get the encouragement to Stop! and Be smart! Because it gets better.

The It Gets Better Project website has more than 50,000 user-created videos which have been viewed more than 50 millions times. Check it out. It’s a great initiative.

Read more:

Austrian newspaper, der Standard, article entitled, “Journalisten können helfen, Suizide zu verhindern,” Oliver, Mark, 19 December 2011, about how journalist can help prevent suicide.

Links to the Austrian initiatives:
Es wird Besser, Österreich

Wiener Antidiskriminierungsstelle für gleichgeschlechtliche und transgender Lebensweisen (WASt)

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