Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Viennese Way of Death


“Only in Vienna…”

 If I had a penny for every time I have heard that expression, I would be living in splendour right now.

 Weird House Press has just released my trilogy – Nemesis of the Gods. For the first time, all three novels – Wrath of the Ancients, Waking the Ancients and Damned by the Ancients – are together in one volume. Centreing on the sinister archaeologist Dr. Emeryk Quintillus, much of the action takes place in Vienna, Austria’s imperial capital and surely one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world. Its streets team with culture and its proud residents are almost fiercely protective of their enigmatic, sometimes quirky, and endlessly fascinating home, where everyone from Strauss to Klimt and Freud lived and worked.

 Vienna is home to well over a hundred museums. It seems there is one for almost anything – Chimney Sweeps, Boy Scouts, Tobacco, Trams, Undertakers, Contraception and Abortion… the list goes on and on. And that’s in addition to the wealth of art and history museums on a grand scale. One of the quirkiest – and the first of its kind anywhere in the world – is the Funeral Museum which has been relocated from the centre of Vienna to its new home in the Zentralfriedhof – Vienna’s main cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

 When you enter, you are plunged into a dark, funereal atmosphere where the history of funerals and of the main funeral directors’ company in Vienna – Bestattung Wien – is laid out in all its pomp and ceremony. The Viennese have always had something of a fascination with death and the quest to achieve a Schöne Leich (literally ‘beautiful corpse’) is a passion. Most frequently that means creating the most lavish of funerals. This was especially the case in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when it seemed people vied with each other to create the most over-the-top ceremony.

 Bestattung Wien prides itself on being able to create the most unusual and individually designed funerals. So successful is it that people even come from abroad in order to have their unique vision executed. Who would believe it? Funeral tourism! The company handles some 20,000 funerals a year, in Vienna and the surrounding area. Anything from traditional limousines, to horse-drawn vehicles. The coffins are made by their own coffin makers and pretty much anything your heart desires can be arranged – at a price of course.  The museum features insignia, ceremonial uniforms, lanterns, a full-size horse-drawn hearse containing a coffin (but minus the horses, of course!)

 In a more modern vein, there is a display cabinet featuring a number of items including a small box with a tiny blue diamond. Yes, this is someone’s ashes, turned into an imitation diamond. The relative could, if they wanted, have this mounted into a piece of jewellery so they could wear their loved one around their neck, on their wrist, finger or even in a brooch worn over their heart.  All this is on display at the museum, providing a unique insight into the Viennese way of death.

 You will also see death masks, and a picture showing the specially designed Sitzsarg or ‘sitting-up’ coffin, based on a painting by Rene Magritte. Only one of these was ever made and it used to be on show but apparently not anymore.

 Also on display are reminders that medical science was not always as accurate as it is today when determining whether a person was actually dead. In the first half of the 19th century, there was a widespread fear of being buried alive so a piece of string was attached to the deceased’s finger before burial. This string led into the cemetery warden’s office so that, in the event the ‘corpse’ woke up, they would ring the bell.  Sadly, this led to a great many false alarms. Decomposition, shifting earth, release of gases after death all lead to changes in the position of the body sufficient to make the bell ring. Eventually the wardens got so fed up, they ceased the practice of attaching the warning bells, but you can see them here.

 Even today, if you are still concerned that you might wake up after being buried, you can specify another option to ensure this could never happen by stating in your Will that, once your death has been pronounced, a thin stiletto-like knife should be used to pierce your heart. Now there can be no mistake. In the museum, one such stiletto is displayed in all its glory, on purple velvet in a glass case. Chilling. That will cost you around 300 Euros.

 In the so-called Age of Enlightenment, in the 18th century, Emperor Josef II saw fit to ban all cemeteries from the centre of Vienna and introduced the ‘reusable’ coffin. This contained a retractable hatch at the bottom. The body was placed in it, lowered, and the hatch released. The corpse, wrapped only in a sack would then fall into the grave. The coffin could then be used again and again. Needless to say, this did not agree with the Viennese way of death, the ‘beautiful corpse’ and all the pomp and ceremony, and was abandoned.

 The museum also features a section dedicated to the burials of six famous people from the modern era– some of whom may be less familiar to non-Austrians although Falco (Rock me Amadeus) is well-remembered, as is Curd Jürgens the actor who played a Bond villain in The Spy Who Loved Me.

 The Viennese dark sense of humour is also evident in the museum’s gift shop where it is possible to buy coffin-shaped USB memory sticks and cigarette cases bearing the words, Rauchen sichert Arbeitsplätze (‘smoking secures jobs’).

 As I said at the beginning, “Only in Vienna…”

 Nemesis of the Gods

An obsession beyond reason. A passion that transcends the grave…

 #1 Wrath of the Ancients

 1913. Storm clouds gather over Europe – and in a basement in Vienna, an unquiet spirit stirs…

Adeline always dreamed of visiting the Austrian capital, so the chance to work there seems like a dream come true. But, from the moment she sets foot in the elegant mansion that belonged to the late archeologist Dr. Emeryk Quintillus, she senses a presence—one so menacing and evil, she fears for her sanity and her life.

Strange noises from behind the walls, shadowy figures that cannot be there, hieroglyphics that appear on the wall, and an enigmatic portrait of a long dead Egyptian queen. Quintillus had made the discovery of the century—so why did he hide it?

Ancient enemies are at war in this mysterious house, and Adeline’s fate is inextricably woven with theirs.

#2 Waking the Ancients

 Quintillus is waiting. Arsinoe will have her revenge…

 It should have been the assignment of a lifetime. Newly arrived in Vienna and living in a sumptuous mansion, Paula’s only challenge appears to be learning the language. But Villa Dürnstein is a house of sinister secrets—most of them in the basement. There, the unquiet spirit of Dr. Emeryk Quintillus continues to search for the woman who will take on the essence of Cleopatra. His obsession with her has reached fever-pitch.

Now he has found her.

 #3 Damned by the Ancients

 Dare to defy the gods and you will pay the price…

 Vienna, 1908 – Quintillus, brings Gabriele Ziegler to the studio of Gustav Klimt. The artist will paint the troubled girl as Cleopatra, with whom Quintillus is infatuated, but the painting is cursed and the girl is possessed by the spirit of Cleopatra’s long-dead sister, the vengeful Arsinoe.

Now Arsinoe and Quintillus begin their unholy alliance.

Vienna 2018 – nine-year-old Heidi Mortimer can see things others cannot. Her almost cat-like vision enables her to see the mysterious man in the basement. He asks for her help but her parents will not believe her. Yet in the basement, Quintillus is trapped, but not for long. He knows the little girl will help him.

Whatever the cost.

“Gothic historical settings that grab you and hurl you back to the past.” Book Nook Retreat

 Available from:

Weird House Press



C.Wraith Walker and Weird House Press