Viennese way of death now pulls in the tourists

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 18, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

VIENNA, Austria -- The cafes, palaces and broad boulevards that they built attract millions of tourists each year. Now these long-dead city residents have themselves become the attraction.

The mummified pregnant lady who died of elephantiasis, the dead old woman with her fingernails still intact, the Hapsburgs' hearts, Maximilian of Mexico's sarcophagus, Ferdinand's intestines -- all are open for a price.

Ever since the death cult of the 17th century, dying has been something special in Vienna. Nowadays, however, the funeral isn't the show. It's the cadavers themselves. In a city of many tourist attractions, death has become the ultimate big draw.

The first stop usually is the Michaeler Church, which stands next to the Hofburg, the palace from which the Hapsburg family ruled Austria -- and at times much of Europe as Holy Roman emperors -- from 1278 to 1918.

Like most churches, the Michaeler had a cemetery outside, but by 1529 the Hapsburgs had had enough of the smell, especially when the rivers overflowed and washed corpses through their front yard.

The cemetery was closed, but no one was willing to open one outside town. After all, the Turks had just besieged the city that year and were a constant threat.

So the church began to lower the sarcophagi into vaults under the church. Men of the cloth and the rich got buried in crypts under the altar and had plaques inside the church as ersatz tombstones. The poor, of course, got dumped anonymously in chambers under pews.

When these vaults got too full, the church sent prisoners down to rip them apart, leaving behind the skeletons. The bones were stacked up in neat piles or crushed underfoot. The floor of the Michaeler Church's vault is more than a yard higher than it was originally -- the result of years of bone-crushing.

After paying the $2 entrance fee, visitors walk on this white sediment and gawk along the side of the crypt at the hollows filled with thigh bones and skulls. In the middle are the Viennese dead who escaped crushing.

They are a motley lot. Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, is the only one identified, although all are well-preserved by the good ventilation and dryness.

The hit is the opened sarcophagus revealing a pregnant woman with massively swollen limbs, telltale signs of the elephantiasis that killed her.

An uncomfortable feeling grips the visitor. It is Disney World's Haunted Mansion gone bad: real corpses on display for the tourist hordes. In the end, the Turks hadn't dug up the graves; the dead's own descendants had.

All the bodies here are from the late 1700s. By 1783 a new fear had gripped the Hapsburgs: The corpses bred the plague, it was said. The crypts were sealed and a new, unpopular central cemetery was built outside the city.

Throughout these years death was something celebrated by the Viennese. Their Hapsburg rulers often were also Holy Roman emperors, supposedly the successors to the Romans and the Roman Catholic Church's closest ally. What the Hapsburgs did commanded attention.

The ruling family's love of theater and self-aggrandizement DTC naturally carried over into death. The capital's best theater stage designers built funeral sets in the churches and three- to five-hour processions were not uncommon.

The "little man" imitated as well as he could.

"People lived modestly, but when they died they wanted to have a pretty corpse," said Brigitte Timmermann, a tour guide who specializes in Vienna's death cult.

They were no match for the emperors, who had three final resting places. Their wax-embalmed bodies lie in sarcophagi in the crypts below the Capuchin monastery ($5 admission).

The intestines are stored below St. Stephan's Cathedral ($3) and their hearts in silver urns in a wing of the Augustiner Church (no charge).

Across from the 54 urns is a stone statue of a grinning skeleton lying in repose, something that could one day inspire a Grateful Dead album cover.

But neither the peace of the dead nor the money they generate in tourism seems to inspire much respect.

Like other traffic-plagued cities, Vienna continues to expand its subway system, which now plows through one underground chapel and several filled-in crypts.

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