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Funeral museum rises from the dead

AFP/The Local · 30 Oct 2014, 11:40

Published: 30 Oct 2014 11:40 GMT+01:00

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In a city with a singular attitude to kicking the bucket -- "Death himself must be a Viennese," one local song says -- the "Bestattungsmuseum" was the world's first of its kind when it first opened in 1967.

This month it reopened, updated for the digital age, in new premises at the Zentralfriedhof, the second-largest cemetery in Europe by surface area. But with some three million "inhabitants", the graveyard is the biggest by number of interred.

The stepped entrance to the subterranean museum takes people literally down into the underworld of undertakers from centuries past, "into the realm of the dead," museum director Helga Bock told AFP.

Some 250 items are on display, many quite opulent, showing how for the Viennese having a good send-off -- or as they say a "schoene Leich" or "beautiful corpse" -- is important, no matter what the cost.

"For nobles, and especially the Imperial Court, funerals were opportunities to demonstrate power. And people adopted these customs, which is why Vienna developed such a specific mourning culture," Bock said.

The many eerie items include death masks, death notices and various coffins.

But among the more bizarre is a bell that was placed above ground, attached to the corpse by a string, to ring if you were buried alive by mistake --  and a special "Herzstichmesser" knife to pierce the heart to make doubly sure you weren't.

Another curiosity is a reusable wooden coffin with a hinged door underneath instigated in 1784 by Emperor Joseph II in order to save money, but withdrawn a year later.

Totally inappropriate

But unlike at the old museum, visitors can no longer lie in a coffin -- some even wanted the lid on -- as they used to be able to do once a year during Vienna's annual Museum Night.

"The management decided ... it was totally inappropriate," Bock said.

The still-operating Central Cemetery itself is a huge draw for visitors, and not just for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day -- November 1 and 2 -- when thousands of Viennese lay flowers at their relatives' graves.

Many locals and tourists take the tram there at weekends -- "Taking the 71" is a euphemism for dying -- to see the tombs of the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and even Austrian pop star Falco, he of "Rock Me Amadeus" fame.

The number buried here is double the current population of Vienna and at 2.5 square kilometres (620 acres) is "half the size of Zurich but twice the fun", the local saying goes.

Austria is largely Catholic, but the cemetery has sections for Protestants, two for Jews -- one partially destroyed by the Nazis -- one for Muslims, and another for Buddhists.

There is a special area too for those who bequeath their bodies to science, one for the victims of the Nazis, a section for stillborn babies and another where urns can be buried among tree roots.

Imperial entrails

All in all in Vienna, death is never far away.

Story continues below…

Other cemeteries include one for pets, a number of Jewish graveyards, one dating back to the 16th century, and a "cemetery for the nameless" for suicides and cadavers washed up by the Danube river.

The Imperial Crypt in Vienna's Capuchin Church, meanwhile, was from 1633 the last resting place of Austria's Habsburg dynasty, containing the bones of 145 royals.

But not all of them. Habsburg tradition dictated that the hearts went into urns in one church, the intestines into copper containers in Vienna's main cathedral, St. Stephen's, and only what was left to the Capuchin Church.

Visitors can also take guided tours through the catacombs at St. Stephen's and see, together with the Habsburgs' guts, the bones of some 1,000 Viennese chucked in during a 1735 plague outbreak.

"The Austrians are known for their worship for the dead," impressed Swiss tourist Benjamin told AFP at the Funeral Museum. "The dead are almost as famous as the living".

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AFP/The Local (rosie.waites@thelocal.com)

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