Geographically, there’s nothing central about Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). Situated in Vienna’s southeast outskirts, the cemetery is nearly a full nine kilometers from the city’s first district. The physical distance is deceptive, however. In reality, Vienna’s relationship to death is much more intimate.
It was Viennese painter Egon Schiele who wrote, “Everything is living dead.” The quote takes on new meaning in Vienna, where death is considered “life’s last celebration” and the prevailing air of cultural nihilism leaves little room for anything more than a muddled distinction between life and death.
“He who would understand how a Viennese lives,” said Austrian writer Hermann Bahr, “must know how he is buried; for his being is deeply bound up by his no-longer-being, about which he is constantly singing in countless bitter-sweet songs.”
Indeed, one of the city’s most famous death anthems claims, “Death himself must be Viennese.” Another, titled “Es lebe der Zentralfriedhof,” (“Long Live the Central Cemetery”) features Austrian musician Wolfgang Ambros and imagines corpses and skeletons coming together to throw a party for the cemetery. Spoiler: the song ends with a psychedelic rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
In his book Vienna: A Cultural History, Nicholas Parsons writes, “In this Catholic Culture, death is a showman, but not an imposter, and ultimately he brings a longed for deliverance, not only from physical suffering but especially from the ruination that others make of our lives and that we make of our own.”
Austro-Hungarian journalist Daniel Spitzer once echoed that thought, remarking, “The grave separates friends and unites enemies.”
Such a cheeky conception of death deserves a worthy residence. And Zentralfriedhof is just the place. In 1863 Vienna was still a burgeoning imperial capital and very aware of its own significance. Facing a population boom, the city needed a sizable piece of land to commemorate its deceased. Then-mayor Dr. Karl Lueger decided on the southeastern plot of land. The choice was met with great public criticism because of the distance. For a while, the engineers behind the project toyed with the idea of a pneumatic tunnel to transport corpses to the cemetery.
Eleven years would follow, but on All Saint’s Day of 1874 Zentralfriedhof was opened to the public. One hundred forty years and 330,000 graves later, the expansive, not-so-central cemetery still holds a firm grip on the heart of the city that claims it. Still today, the Viennese quip, “It’s half the size of Zurich but twice the fun.”
Last month, I trekked the nine kilometers to visit Zentralfriedhof for the first time to see what the fun was all about. It’s a lush, sprawling landscape and home to 3.3 million interred bodies, almost twice the number of the city’s living residents.
The graves of Ludwig van Beethoven, Alfred Adler, even Hans Hölzel, the Austropop star better known by the name Falco, are included among the Ehrengräber (Honorary Graves). One can turn a corner and be met by the grave of a famous playwright, a peddler selling snacks and flowers a touch too irreverently, or the sight of two fawns chasing each other through gravestones.
Zentralfriedhof is and always has been inter-confessional, a choice that, in the cemetery’s early years, angered conservative sectors of Austria’s Catholic community. The cemetery features a Buddhist, a Protestant, and an Islamic plot, where, in compliance with Austrian law, bodies are buried in a coffin as opposed to a shroud. The old Jewish cemetery, largely destroyed on Pogromnacht, remains a testament to Austria’s once-strong Jewish population. Today, there are nearly ten times more Jewish graves in Vienna than living Jewish residents of Austria.
I didn’t follow much of a plan on my stroll through Zentralfriedhof. The only grave I made a point of seeing was Falco’s—feel free to debate the merits of that decision. My meandering tour brought me to the graves of Franz Schubert, Arthur Schnitzler, and others. The most striking grave, however, was that of Wenzel Prückel, the namesake of a favorite Viennese café.
It was there, standing in front of his grave, that I first recognized his legacy. I had eaten, drank, written, and read in his café, all in the company of some of the people I love the most. But in that moment I was confronted with the person of Wenzel Prückel in a way I never had been before.
When Egon Schiele wrote the words, “Everything is living dead,” I don’t think he meant them optimistically. To be alive is to be working towards death with each step, bite, or word. Perhaps we’re caught in an inescapable current of self-destruction. The old Jewish cemetery, now nearly destroyed, remains an undeniable witness to that. Perhaps death, as Parsons writes, is the only hope of deliverance. But since my trip to the Zentralfriedhof, I’ve been thinking about the ways we live, even after death.