The Cemetery

I’ve found my favourite place in Vienna (so far). 

I have a thing for graveyards in any city or town. They draw me in because they are zen and quiet, and, in cities especially, the air there seems cleaner and calmer away from the constant fumes of traffic and people. Maybe it’s the dormant urban planner in me struggling to get out, but I find it fascinating to consider the layout of graveyards, as well as the process of making sacred certain spaces in cities and the constant maintenance required for such spaces. Mostly, though, I enjoy the more morbid philosophical contemplations they draw from me, especially regarding mortality, as Megan knows. Chad VanGaalen will set help set the mood for this post with his aptly named (and beautiful) “Graveyard”:

On Tuesday, I went to the Zentralfriedhof, the largest of Vienna’s cemeteries, and this city has nearly 50 of them (I won’t give a summary of its history, since I’d just be getting it from Wikipedia anyway, and that seems a bit redundant). But here’s a bird’s eye view of it, with the Dr. Karl Lueger-Gedächtniskirche in the middle:

I decided to walk there, since I live in the 10th district, Favoriten, and the cemetery is located in the 11th district, Simmering. It was a solid hour and a half walk, but since I only had to walk along one street and then make a left onto another, I didn’t get lost (which is, of course, not always my goal). I listened to Bloc Party for the journey, since they are upbeat but have a sort of melancholic undertone to many of their songs. And they’re awesome, so there’s that. I suspected I was getting close to the Zentralfriedhof when I started passing stores for headstones (regular old Sherlock Holmes, eh?). By entering through Tor 1, the closest of the eleven main entrance gates, I wandered into an older, more overgrown part of the cemetery. This was by far my favourite part of the excursion, even though the more “famous” parts like the church and the politicians’ and composers’ graves were also… nice. But there were more people in these areas, and they definitely did not convey the same contemplative, transcendent ambiance with their well-manicured lawns, maintenance vehicles and tour groups. So, I did see the circle of graves of famous composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – and went in the church to admire its typical solemn atmosphere and decorative decadence. Here’s Mozart’s tribute, although he is actually buried at St. Marxer Cemetery:

However, I was far more moved by the less-frequented areas. It was a clear, crisp and slightly cloudy day, perfect for cemetery wandering. The deep silence of the hundreds upon hundreds of graves stretching before me seemed amplified by the traffic noises far away, and I was even treated to the cinematic effects – cheesy but potent – of flocks of ravens cawing and creaking tree branches. The crypts were so ornate and beautiful in this part of the graveyard. I can’t imagine putting that much thought into how I would want the design of my crypt to look, and then shelling out a good amount of dough for someone to execute that plan after I’d died. In a word, the graves looked stately, as if the families buried here wanted to keep their good reputations alive with this stone homage to their passing(s). One last effort to etch your family’s name in granite, as material proof that you once existed… I digress, but these are the sorts of thoughts that graveyards elicit from me. And what better form of physical tangent is there to complement such a thought process than following a winding trail that wends its way through the bodies of the dead?

Another inspiring section (of those I saw, since this place is huge) was the Buddhist graveyard, a simple circle of grass with unmarked gravestones made all the more visually arresting when compared to the ornate crypts I’d passed by. I really should get a camera so I can take my own photos of these adventures, but this beautiful photo comes courtesy of Cyraphine’s Flickr, and will help me describe what the central structure stands for. A sign on the side of the circle denotes which element each section represents in the stupa. The base symbolizes earth, the glass dome is water, the spire is fire, the top part is air, and above that is space.

Another stunning building is the Jewish War Memorial for casualties from Word War I, a circular structure that is open to the sky above. You can enter and read all of the names of the soldiers. (Photo of the parapet courtesy of alexandria42.) It was somewhat claustrophobic, being within those thick stone walls and staring up at a pale grey sky, but the message was powerfully conveyed by those walls and those names, so starkly displayed. 

Since the sun sets really early these days and the Zentralfriedhof was closing at 5:00 pm, I figured I should find my way back to Tor 1 before getting locked into this place for a night of sheer terror. The air had taken on that particular snapping cold, numb-fingers-and-nose characteristic of a November afternoon. Dusk was falling quickly, and the cloudy sky had lost just enough light to make it difficult to discern between shadows and gravestones and ghosts. The ravens flying overhead made everything more ominous, as they are wont to do. Cemeteries during the day are awesome, but that’s a completely different story once darkness approaches. I found my way to the gates without much fuss, suffering only one moment of panic as I checked all three of the gates only to find that they were festooned with rusted padlocks and chains, and then realized that the entrance I’d taken was another 12 feet away (and still open). It was full-on dark at this point, so I decided to take the tram back to district 10, and it only took about 15 minutes. Not a long commute for some future afternoon in the mind-expanding company of the dead.

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