Commemorating the Faithful Departed

We will all die–detail from the Imperial Crypt.

Death is, in a sense, always just around the corner in Vienna. Those who value the city for its high standard of living will know that this is not because of an unusually high mortality rate but due to a centuries-old tradition of “a schene Leich” or opulent funerals and ostentatious gravesites that developed in response to the indignities of Emperor Joseph II’s austerity measures—reusable coffins and mass graves on the outskirts of town.

Consequently, Vienna houses numerous reminders of mortality tucked away among its museums, monuments and fin de siècle architecture. Well known examples like the Imperial Crypt and the Central Cemetery, one of Europe’s largest, get plenty of attention, but the observant eye will pick out many more details. For example, I have a view of the tall trees of an overgrown Jewish cemetery from the Biedermeier period obscured from the street level on all sides by apartment buildings and an inconspicuous brick wall topped with broken glass and barbed wire. On my walk to work I pass the recently restored funerary hall featuring a winged hourglass set above the front door. I continue my way through a copse of trees that shades a collection of headstones of artistic and historic value that were preserved when a park was created from a municipal cemetery in 1923. See here for a few photos:

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These tangible reminders are complemented by the strong cultural influence of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Today is a public holiday and the country–believers and non-believers alike–commemorates its dead—the (not yet cannonized) saints on All Saints’ Day and the faithful departed tomorrow on All Souls’ Day, though such fine distinctions are hardly made in practice. Family members visit the graves of relatives and decorate them with floral arrangements in recognition of the transience of life and light candles as a symbol of eternal life. Here is a video of today’s festivities in Bavaria. Or maybe you do so just because it looks nice and is a convenient time to prepare for winter. See here for some gravesite gardening tips.

Christ reaching across the veil at the Mormon cemetery in Vienna.

Austrian Mormons have their own cemetery in Vienna and will also be found among those who remember their dead this weekend. For the last ten years that I’ve lived here, it’s been easy remain detached despite the nearly omnipresent symbolism and public ritual–after all, I’m American and Mormon and we don’t really do this kind of thing where I come from–but this year is different. My mother died this spring and although her grave is thousands of miles away, I’m going to join in and light a candle in her memory. And in the coming week I plan another post or two on the challenges surrounding the end of life.

In the meantime, may your hearts be turned to those who have gone on before!


  1. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of the many ways that hearts are turned.

  2. Gosh, Pete, you’ve once again made me homesick for Vienna! Despite its surly people, the city somehow just gets things right. Time to plan a long weekend.

  3. Peter LLC says:

    And thank you, juliathepoet, for reading.

    We’d be happy to host you and yours, RJH.

  4. cookie queen says:

    I love this post. More. CQ xxx

  5. I love this, Peter. May your celebrations be rich and rewarding.

  6. Thanks, Peter. Looking forward to the rest.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks, Peter. Almost thou persuadest me to visit Vienna.

  8. Geoff - Aus says:

    The Germans are also very caring of their dead and particularly the care of the cemeteries which are beautifully kept, and visited weekly.

  9. Indeed, Geoff – Aus, the gravesite gardening tips link above illustrates the level of attention paid those kinds of things.

    Steve, you might as well swing by if you’re already going to be visiting Bratislava or the premium outlets at Parndorf.

  10. Love this — thanks Peter. I am a fan of cemetery tourism as well. Love the respect, contemplation, and gratitude that such visits invoke, especially when our own loved ones are part of the process.

  11. Thanks for your post. I am dealing with my own death in the family and your article was a reminder that sometimes we miss the symbols and memorials of death in front of our faces until it confronts us.

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