I’ve always had a macabre fascination with graveyards and anything to do with the dead. Halloween has always been my second favourite holiday of the year – after Xmas, of course. I love all that gruesome horror and Gothic vibe, but not so much that I go to work wearing guy-liner, or looking like a decoy for Marilyn Manson.
One of the last jobs my father held before he died, was that of a security guard. He’d often have to do night shifts that included a patrol through a graveyard. I remember him telling me once that people would often ask him if he ever felt scared walking through a graveyard at night. He answered, “it’s not the dead we should be afraid of, but the living.”
There’s just something cool about a really old church and its surrounding graveyard. If I ever win one of those mega-jackpot lotteries, I’d definitely buy an old abandoned church to live in (with an attached graveyard of course) and have lovely picnics on my lawn in the summer. Since that dream is still out of my reach, I’ll just have to visit one of the many crypts and catacombs that can be found here in Vienna. There are quite a few of around the city that are available to the public and here is the first of three experiences I recall from earlier this year.
St. Michael’s is an eight-hundred-year-old church in the centre of Vienna. Beneath its foundations lies a large crypt, the Michaelergruf. It is available to the public as a guided tour, Thursday to Saturday, at 11am and 1pm. It costs €7 and is well worth the price. My tour guide spoke both English very well, so there’s no need to worry if you can’t sprechen Sie Deutsch, like myself.
Once the tour started, our guide explained the history of the church, which goes back as far as Roman times. It still includes an arch from an old Roman place of worship, just inside on the left as you enter the nave. Our guide also explained that the crypt below our feet was vast, and it even extended way outside the boundaries of the church. Finally, we were guided through a doorway and led down into the crypt itself via some steep steps.
As we entered the crypt, we were unfortunately informed that photos were not allowed. I was saddened by this, but from what I was about to witness, I can understand why (further pictures can be found on their website via this link). Two hundred and forty coffins (mostly wood, but also including thirty metal ones) are laid out all along the floor. The crushed bones from around four thousand bodies lay below our feet too, up to thirty centimetres deep, and covered in lime and soil. Along some of the walls, they have stacked so many bones on top of one another that the piles reach six feet in height.
Several of the wooden coffins were open and there were three mummies you could view. It was amazing to see the mummified remains of a young woman, still in her funeral robes; you could even see the fine detail of one of her sandals. The youngest mummy was laid here two hundred and forty-seven years ago. One interesting fact our guide told was that it was hard for them to guess the age of the mummies. But one way to tell if they were older than thirty years was if they were missing teeth, since dental care must have been non-existent back then.
The coffins themselves are fascinating too. Most were decorated with wonderful artwork. The reoccurring motives, painted on the sides of the coffins, were blown-out or broken candles and hourglasses, as well as crossed bones and skulls.
There were nineteen separate crypts in total down here, but not all are accessible to the public. The main crypt we started in had air conditioning units all around the place. They need to keep the crypt at a constant 12°C. This temperature prevents a certain type of beetle/weevil from feeding on the coffins. Apparently, in 1945, a bomb on or nearby the church caused flooding in the crypt. Many coffins were lost because of the 90° humidity.
So there’s no real bad smell down here, but whilst my guide was talking, I zoned out as I was staring at one of the air-conditioning units and my over-active imagination kicked in… what if I caught some deadly plague down here that had been dormant for centuries? Over the next few days, I then come down with some nasty man-flu-like symptoms. Eventually, after lying in a pool of my own puss and effluent for several days, I turn into one of those speedy zombies like out of the film 28 Day Later. Jack Volante WAS patient zero, HE caused the zombie apocalypse!
Back to reality.
Towards the end of the tour, we were guided through to one of the other, smaller crypts where some of the posher people and former clergy were kept. Here, the coffins were very different from the wooden ones. They were ornately detailed Baroque copper/tin coffins, with some weighing up to 600Kg. Families of the deceased were allowed to come down and visit, but apparently, the smell back then was atrocious, when they opened the crypt. In 1784, the last coffin was laid.
Overall, this was a fantastic tour and just what I wanted to see. I highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting Vienna who isn’t squeamish and wants to see something… rare and fascinating.
In my next blog, I’ll tell you more about my trip around crypt #2, St. Stephen’s cathedral.