Over our dead bodies: Austrian Saints dedicate their corner of Vienna’s Central Cemetery

From Peter LLC. This is a follow-up to Ronan’s post here.

On September 19, 2009, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Austria celebrated the dedication of what I estimate to be an hectare-sized plot set apart for the Mormon deceased, located in Vienna’s massive Central Cemetery (aka Zentralfriedhof), one of Europe’s largest in terms of area and bodies buried. In a way, this small yet centrally-located plot represents a coming of age for the Church in Austria, an expression of the Church’s status as one of 15 state-sanctioned religions.

In order to better understand the significance of what the Austrian Saints celebrated last month, it’s helpful to understand a couple of issues relating to the Church’s status in Austria. First, church and state have been traditionally close throughout Austrian history; until the end of Austria-Hungary in 1918, for example, the emperor was personally involved in appointing each Roman Catholic bishop, and religious affairs were strictly governed by the Kultusministerium, or the ministry of religious affairs. To this day, the Kultusministerium lives on in spirit and function as the Kultusamt, or religious affairs office, of the Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture, and is responsible for the execution of regulations concerning public worship, which these days amounts to determining if religious groups qualify for either of two levels of official recognition and conducting public awareness campaigns on the dangers of cults.

The second issue, religious freedom, is related to the first in that non-Catholic religions faced official and private discrimination and even persecution until Joseph II issued the 1781 and 1782 Edicts of Tolerance and ushered in an age of enlightened absolutism in which one distinguished between public and private religious expression and let the latter be (mostly). This distinction remains in place to this day, with the modern Republic of Austria hardly interested in what adults of legal age do behind closed doors as long as no other laws are broken, but still keen to regulate public religion. At first, recognition was extended on an ad-hoc basis, but in 1874 the requirements for recognition were codified in the Recognition Act, though the provisions still left much room for discretion by the competent minister charged with determining if the teachings and manner of worship were in any way illegal or morally offensive and if the means to create and maintain at least one “religious community” were at hand.

A couple of world wars and governments later, the Church in Austria received its official recognition in September 1955. (I’m sure there’s an interesting story to be told here; I suspect linkages between Marshall Plan aid, a certain Secretary of Agriculture and Austrian willingness to make concessions in exchange for independence.) With official status came a number of rights and privileges. To name just a few, these include: state financed religious education (the Church here does not take advantage of the financed part, but you do get credit for seminary), a voice in public television program planning (see broadcast below), exemptions from the Alien Employment Act and Residence Act (visas for missionaries), and, not least, the possibility to erect and maintain a cemetery.

And so at long last the Austrian members did just that. The event was an ecumenical fest with Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and socialists (er, officials from the City of Vienna) on hand to unveil the sculpture by Heinrich Lersch marking the burial site and to celebrate tolerance, diversity and community, evidencing a growing if hard-fought acceptance of Mormons in the larger society. For the German speakers, a summary can be found here and a segment shown last week on Austria’s public broadcaster (think Austria’s version of the BBC; it’s a pretty big deal) here.

But of course the star of the show was Christ, both in spirit and in, well, bronze. Faithful readers will recall that Ronan’s post above depicted an early concept for the sculpture to adorn the Mormon cemetery consisting of four figures–a man and a woman on one side, Jesus and a child on the other, hands clasped through a veil. So what was unveiled at the dedication? Veil? No veil?  And how does the sculpture fit into its physical surroundings?

Well, follow me on a virtual tour of the Zentralfriedhof and find out!

1) The main avenue of the Zentralfriedhof leading to the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo.


2) Passing the rich (chair Nr. 14 for you design freaks)…


3)…the famous (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, both Straußes, etc.)…


4)…the statesmen (federal presidents)…


5) …the nifty art nouveau Church of Saint Charles Borromeo…


6)…, hey, can’t just walk by without stopping to view the heavenly dome…


7)…and a slightly more robed Christus.


8. Back outside, we pass a section reserved for nuns…


9) …and lo, bronze figures come into view.


10) Hmm, no veil in sight.


11) What’s the deal with the granite pedestal–yin and yang? Wait a minute–I get it. Subtle. Nicely done.


12) Hands are unclasped, unlike the earlier concept.


13-17) Various perspectives.






Twelve graves are arranged around the statue; four of them already occupied with some well-known names in the Austrian church. As a result of the once far-flung monarchy many Viennese family names sound foreign, and the ones engraved on these headstones are no exception, all of them Slavic. While I was taking pictures, two ladies wandered by and came over to check out the burial site, wondering aloud what it could all mean. One of them, noting the names on the headstones asked, “So, is this place for foreigners or something?”

Fitting somehow. A month after celebrating a surge of probably unprecedented positive attention, Mormons are back to being perceived as outsiders in their own country, official recognition and a central location in the Zentralfriedhof notwithstanding. Oh well. There’s always the millennium.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    I find the hands very compelling, for a variety of reasons.

  2. Very, very cool. I am so happy for the Austrian HLT and congratulate them for grasping what they are entitled to. It’s a model of (Mormon) church-state relations that is almost unique, I think.

    Shame they lost the veil, though. It made the statue particularly “Mormon.”

  3. Although the polished/unpolished granite symbolism is brilliant.

  4. Congratulations to our brothers and sisters in Austria! I would have loved to see what the original concept would have looked like completed, but I actually really like the subtlety of the of the two shades on the platform.

  5. I think this is Aus-some!

  6. What is required to be buried here in the LDS plot?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    An awesome photo essay. Thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Naturally, being German, the name “Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der Letzten Tage” clocks in at 50% longer in syllable count than the English version. Do they say HLT for short, or just LDS? Or do Austrians do abbreviations?

  9. This is very cool. Thanks for this post!

    For any of you curious non-German-speaking types, the piece Peter linked to was also very nicely done. It accurately covered the basics and had a number of meaningful and substantive quotes from members at the event. A great example the church “defining itself” through the media…I honestly can’t think of an example this good from any of the media exposure I’ve seen here in the U.S…ever.

  10. Very cool, I like the subtle hint of the veil in the base of the monument.

    bbell, # 6, I assume you have to be, well, dead….

  11. Room temperature check yes.

    How does one qualify for being buried here? A TR?, status as a ward librarian?

  12. Good question, bbell. I actually don’t know. I didn’t even realize anyone had been buried there until after church this last Sunday when I went by to take the pictures or else I would have asked. I’ll update the post when I find out.

    Dan, the Austrians definitely do abbreviations, and the church’s Austrian website is http://www.hlt.at . Otherwise “Kirche Jesu Christi” is fairly common shorthand.

  13. I should say: “fairly common self-referential shorthand.” For everyone else we’re “Zeugen Jehovas.” 8)

  14. outstanding

  15. In the Nordic countries there is religious tolerance as long as that means you have no religion at all. Become a member of another religion, and you’re a fiend. That includes the fact that you can’t be buried in hallowed ground. They’ll bury an atheistic communist, but not a Mormon.

    Being state religion does that, no matter how open-minded they ostensibly are. (The above mentioned countries have Lutheran state churches — they mostly have legislation in place that separates them, but as long as some 80% of the population are members and have their kids christened at max 3 months — and it takes real effort to do anything else — it will be de facto state religion.)

  16. Beautiful photos. I fell uncomfortable with celebrating the inclusion of being among the 15 “state-sanctioned religions” when so many others are marginalized or even, apparently, persecuted by the government there (the dangers of cults!). I would rather we pray and work toward true religious freedom for all.

  17. Peter, nicely done! Thank you for sharing this. It made me very homesick for Wien. I think the church may have been a tiny bit truer there, and certainly the art was better.

  18. Very neat. I liked the pedestal and the symbolic “veil” as well.

    E: I agree with your comments on working toward true religious freedom for all.

  19. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea this had happened, but I spent countless hours restoring Jewish gravesites in this cemetery while on my mission. This brings back a lot of great memories! And I appreciated the comment in 13 about being Zeugen Jehovas. We’re also often Amishcen. :-)

  20. Great post and photos, thanks.

  21. E and Steve C, the good news is that there is glacial progress in recognizing new religions. The Jevoha’s Witnesses are the first to have done so this year after new requirements were imposed in 1997 which introduced a second kind of official recognition (eleven religions qualified) but imposed a ten year wait and minimum membership requirements of 0.002% of the general population or about 16,000 on these groups before qualifying for full recognition. Add a couple of years for bureaucratic dilly-dallying and here we are.

  22. Well done Peter — very cool to see that this has now been executed. I think the statue as exected is better than the draft with that clumsy veil. I also like the anticipation entailed in the unclasped hands and the movement.

  23. Peter LLC says:

    Thanks, John. I too prefer the “as delivered” version.

  24. Left Field says:

    My guess is that the veil in the original design was scrapped at least in part because of logistic concerns. It looked like it was to be made of thin translucent plexiglass, easily damaged by strong wind or vandals.

  25. It was reported to me thus: Austria was a divided country with Russian, US, British and French zones. In 1953 talks were started to eliminate the foreign occupation of Austria. It was noted at the time that this was the first time that the Soviet Union every relinquishment a conquest. (The women in the Soviet Zone were under constant threat of rape, or, as the Soviet soldiers said, Kartoffel schaelen. Come and “peel potatoes” for us.)

    A US colonel sat at the table who was Mormon. He was instrumental in including Staatsanerkennung for the Mormons in the final treaty. When I was there there were only 3000 Mormons and, I believe, only 3 religions which were officially recognized.

  26. Thanks for the tip, BobW.

    Unfortunately membership numbers haven’t changed much since you were there; there are probably around 4000 on church records, but only about 2200 self-reported as Mormons in the 2001 census.

  27. The pedestal inscription: Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben… I am the resurrection and the life.

  28. john willis says:

    Is this the cemetery that was shown in the Orson Welles movie ‘The Third Man” which was set in Vienna shortly after World War II ?

  29. john willis says:

    I just checked on an internet movie data base and it is the same cemetery. The Third Man will be shown on the Turner Classic Movie Channel a week from today Oct. 21.

  30. Cathy Lemmon says:

    How beautiful! I’m so pleased to learn of this. I attended school in Germany years ago and was able to spend some time (not enough!) in the beautiful city, Wien. It was a cold and rainy day when I visited the Zentralfriedhof, so I’m so pleased to see it in the sunshine!

    (By the way, as a musician, may I insert that Mozart is not buried at the Zentralfriedhof. There is the memorial for him there, but he is actually at the St. Michaels Friedhof, in an unmarked grave. There is a small memorial to him there as well.)

    Is Immo Luschin among those interred here? I was able to attend a couple of firesides where he spoke and learned so much from him!

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

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