I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.
Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!
Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!
Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)
And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.
Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).
The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.
Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.