In recent years, glowing orange pumpkin masks and shouts of “trick or treat” have become increasingly popular as Austrians celebrate the 1 November bank holiday.
However, when the first autumn fogs creep across Austria in late October and the first leaves start to fall, Halloween is not the traditional Austrian festival for this time of year.
Anyone hoping to get a real flavour of Austria simply needs to head to where the stands selling flower arrangements and candles pop up about a week in advance – and that means anywhere near cemeteries where the whole population seems out and about heading to family graveyards for All Saints’ Day on 1 November.
The Austrian preoccupation with death, funerals, dying and remembrance is part of Austrian everyday’s life and culture and Vienna, as well as other Western European cities, it has its own museum dedicated exclusively to this topic.
The Vienna Funeral Museum gives a comprehensive overview of funeral customs, burial rites, and the special Viennese perspective on death showcasing such curious items as the “flap coffin” of the time of Emperor Joseph II, so named for the flap on its underside, making it reusable.
Only as an example, such was (and sometimes still is) the desire for evermore luxurious funerals at the beginning of the twentieth century —as exemplified by the proverbial Schoene Leich (“beautiful corpse”)— that numerous competing private funeral homes were replaced by a municipal funeral company in order to prevent the citizens of Vienna to expend unbelievable amounts of money on funerals.
All Saints’ Day is a continuation of this tradition celebrated on 1 November even though it’s ostensibly in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. All Saints’ Day in Austria is a part of a week known as Seelenwoche (All Souls’ Week) during which the Austrians believe the curtain between the world of the spirits and the living is thinner than normal.
In Austria people celebrate All Saints’ Day with extended family, including the deceased. It is thought that in Austrian villages the souls of the dead will gather on the eve of All Saints’ Day for the family celebration, in order to help lead their way through the lighted processions of the living move toward the graveyard to leave lanterns at the grave sites.
At noon on All Saints’ Day, it is tradition to listen for church bells. This begins the hour of Seelenauslauten, during which the souls of the dead are released. People in Austria also attend Catholic Mass, the traditional liturgy of the Eucharist and visit the graves of loved ones decorating them with candles and flower arrangements.
Although All Saints’ Day is a national holiday during which schools and shops are closed, public transportation continues to run and even has additional routes to the cemeteries. Traditionally, people in Vienna attend the annual celebratory event at the largest and most famous cemetery of the city, Zentralfriedhof (234 Simmeringer Haupstrasse), where also personalities such as Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert or Strauss are buried.
If you happen to be in the city at that time it may seem a strange suggestion but it really is the place to be if you are only visiting.
Graves are symbolically decorated to resemble the Garden of Eden as a way to encourage the dead to find their way to the paradise of heaven. Wealthy Austrians are buried in elaborate mausoleums, but nearly all graves are well tended, with flowers neatly arranged.
Thousands of people will gather in Zentralfriedhof to listen to music and have picnic feasts with family and friends. But among the 55 cemeteries in Vienna, one of the most touching and unusual is the Friedhof Der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless (Alberner Hafen). This cemetery is quite far from the centre of Vienna, located near the junction of the Danube Canal and the Danube itself, it is hidden behind huge grain warehouses and silos.
Most of the corpses are unidentified victims of drowning which the river’s current brought ashore. River improvements have meant that there are no more eddies to bring the dead bodies ashore near the cemetery, but still every year on All Saints’ Day the nameless are remembered: some fishermen from the Albern area keep an old tradition alive by building a raft decorated with flowers and bearing a commemorative inscription for the victims of the Danube.
So if you want to get behind the Halloween mask and get a taste of real Austria simply follow the crowd and stop when you get the sea of red candles.