There’s a perhaps unlikely stopping place on any real musical lover’s tour of Vienna. It’s the city’s giant municipal cemetery, called the Zentralfriedhof in German. The name is deceptive, because it is “central” only in the sense that it was designed in the 1860s to be a huge center for burying people. It was in fact located 6 miles from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the central point of Vienna, way outside the city limits of the time. You therefore have to really want to visit, as it’s not on any usual city tour, because it’s so far out. Yet people do come. It’s up there in the top 25 attractions of Vienna on Tripadvisor, scoring a very solid 4.5 out of 5.
What then is the attraction? First we need a little bit of background. People used to be buried in church cemeteries within cities, with great lavish funerals. The really wealthy were buried inside the actual churches. In English this gave rise to the expression “stinking rich” – ordinary people would have to walk past and over the gravestones during mass and the smell was apparently non too pleasant, particularly in summer. Emperor Josef II, the great reformer and enlightenment monarch, decided to put an end to all this in Austria in the late 1700s. He proclaimed that the burial system was a public health risk and a complete waste of money. Reusable coffins were introduced (the bottoms literally opened) and new cemeteries outside the area people lived in were created.
The Zentralfriedhof was and is a massive burial place. It’s the largest cemetery in Europe by the numbers of bodies interred here. Some 3.3 million people have been buried in the 590 acre beautifully landscaped area. Currently there are 330,000 actual graves. The discrepancy in numbers comes from the fact that in Austria and Germany you do not buy a permanent grave: you lease a plot of land for a term (e.g. 25 years) and if the lease is not renewed by the family, the space is used again. Unlike other countries, you therefore don’t have acres filled with old gravestones that nobody visits, but which cannot be touched. It’s all terribly efficient and sensible in a way. The Zentralfriedhof is a “working” cemetery: around 30 people are still buried there a week.
Because of its distant location, however, there was concern that family members were not coming out to graves to attend to their lost ones’ final resting places. It had become a “dead place” (excuse the pun). So the idea of the “Honorary Graves” came about. If the great and the good were buried here too, the hope was that the presence of famous deceased people that everyone knew of, would encourage ordinary people to come out to the cemetery and do their duty for their own loved ones. It was literally planned as a kind of tourist attraction. There’s no time limit on this category of grave of course: they will be here forever. There are all sorts of famous people who have been given honorary graves: writers, scientists, and politicians (including a special vault for the presidents of Austria).
This being the capital of world music, however, the most famous of all are the musicians. Accordingly, within an area measuring 50 feet square lie the bodies of some of the greatest composers the world has known. Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss Junior, Arnold Schoenberg and Antonio Salieri all have their resting places next to one another. It’s a strange and quite wonderful feeling to visit this place and to acknowledge the mortal remains of the collective musical genius you find here. I’ve seen choirs burst into song as a sign of honour and respect.
The famous composers did not by any means all come from Vienna: they moved here during their lifetimes because it was the center of world music. People now think as them as Viennese as a result. The Austrians in fact joke that “Germany gave them Beethoven, and they gave Germany Hitler.” It’s not actually wrong: many people don’t realize their respective birth countries and nationalities. Nor were all of these men even buried here initially: both Beethoven and Schubert’s bodies were dug up and moved here decades after their deaths to add to the prestige of the musical section. There are three big names obviously missing: Handel lies in Westminster Abbey in London; Haydn is buried in Eisenstadt (after his head was finally reunited with his body in 1954 – read more about that here) and Mozart rests in an unmarked grave somewhere in St. Marx cemetery nearby. If they knew where he was, he would certainly have been brought here. As it is, there’s a monument to him with the other composers, but no actual grave.
The Zentralfriedhof is an extraordinary place. It’s not just who lies there (though for any musician, that is of course remarkable). The landscape architects were awarded for transferring a massive area “from dire to sublime”. It’s incredibly beautiful and perfectly kept, with areas of trees, grass, flowers and ornamental bushes. It’s also unusual because it’s state land, but has a religious and interdenominational character. There are defined Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish burial areas. The Roman Catholic hierarchy objected to this strongly when the cemetery opened, but their resistance was ignored. Muslims have been buried here since 1876, and Europe’s first Buddhist burial ground has been located here since 2005.
Finally, we need to mention the inevitable humor attached to any place so associated with death and sorrow. The tram that comes out here, the number 71, is known as the “watering can express” because of all the little old ladies who come out here from the city, with watering cans in hand to tend graves. In days gone by, coffins were transported on that same tram route during the night. Accordingly a euphemism for someone having died in Vienna is to say that they’ve “taken the 71”. That method of bringing the bodies out was finally stopped by the Allies after the Second World War. The best accolade for the fascinating and enormous Zentralfriedhof has to be the expression you’ll inevitably hear any Viennese person say when you mention it. “Did you know it’s half the size of Zurich, and twice as much fun?” they will ask you. Lovely bit of Alpine country rivalry there, in a wonderful sideswipe at the neighboring Swiss.
If you’re in Vienna, you’re interested in music, and you get the chance… give it a visit. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised, perhaps moved, and even entertained.
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