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The Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna
The Funeral Service Institute of Vienna is responsible for most of the city's undertaking. They will cremate you, find you your ideal coffin or even have you turned into a diamond. Whatever your needs after death may be, they can probably accommodate you.
They also happen to have a museum, which is open to the public but viewable by appointment only. I would highly recommend making an appointment, as you'll get a €4.50 personal tour (€2.50 for larger groups) from the museum's delightfully enthusiastic curator, Dr. Wittigo Keller. The exhibit is truly fascinating. From their funeral customs to their beliefs about death, the Viennese have an intriguing cultural perspective on the big sleep.
There is currently very little English-language information available about the Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna, so I'm delighted to be the first to take you on a virtual tour. Let's start with the sitting-up coffin above.
Jacques-Louis David famously painted this portrait of Madame Récamier, then this coffin to go around her. Keller, the curator of The Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna (FSIV), created this coffin for a European funeral fair (which happens every three years). "It's not practical," he noted. Bodies must legally be buried six feet underground (below the freezing line), so one would have to dig several feet deeper to bury this coffin. Still, for the right price, he could says they could make it work.
The sitting-up coffin was one of the first things we saw at the museum, and it set the stage for an intellectual and curious look into death, rather than one filled with dread. The initial willies were shaken off, and we began discussing the new trend of creating diamonds out of the deceased's ashes.
Diamonds Made of Dead People
You may have heard of LifeGem or another company which does this. People have been making diamonds synthetically for years (all you need is carbon, heat and pressure), and making a diamond from someone's ashes, to some, is a beautiful way to give them metaphorical "eternal life." Most diamonds created from human ashes are light blue, due to the chemicals in our bodies, but in the cases of people who've been through extensive medical treatments, the color can be different. Some companies will add chemicals post-mortum and allow you to make the diamond any color you like, but the FSIV doesn't do that. Keller reports that it takes about 8 months to turn human ashes into a diamond, and the price for a quarter carat is about €4,680 (€14,440 for a full carat). It's something to think about, because unless you put your desire to become a diamond in your will, your loved ones probably won't come up with the idea.
Wearing Grandma's ashes in a diamond necklace isn't really any stranger than keeping her on the mantle.
Next, we headed into a room filled with black outfits for all the various officiants in historical Viennese funerals. In addition to black, funerals in Vienna could feature red paraphernalia for military men, and for children, youths and anyone unmarried, much of the black regalia would be light blue. Keller joked that a light blue funeral meant that you were "a complete loser in this life and the next," and added that if you're not married, you'd best not die in Vienna.
From about 1850 to about 1930, what mourning women wore to funerals in Vienna was an extremely important matter. Every October, newspapers would publish what the proper style for funerals would be that year, and if women were spotted in last year's style, it reflected very poorly on them and their families. Naturally, it became possible to rent the appropriate dress to wear to a funeral -- in fact, this is still practiced in Vienna. Just as you might rent a gown for a ball, you can rent a mourning dress for an important funeral. Jewelry was also regulated by the annual October announcement, and Keller says that this was actually the origin of costume jewelry.
After Death Certification
Next, we headed into a room of what Keller called "rescue alarm clocks." Production of these began around 1854 when there was mass hype about the possibility that you could seem dead and be buried, and then suddenly wake up -- buried alive. There were many, many different contraptions you could purchase to prevent this horrifying fate. For example: the double-sided knife, which specially licensed doctors would stab into your heart to ensure that you were dead (you can still request this, and he says old ladies in particular sometimes do, €300), known as "after death certification." Another rescue alarm clock was quite literally an alarm, which he demonstrated for us:
That rope would have led from a coffin directly into the dining room of the cemetery-keeper. That's a dinner party foul.
Next, we looked at some antique children's funeral toys, which really confused me at first. Basically, Keller explained, a funeral is viewed like a wedding, or any other important passage, and children must be taught how to behave before they can attend. So, from a very young age, children would be given funeral toys to play with so that they could learn the proper procedures and not be afraid.
On the whole, death in Vienna is regarded as a far less scary affair. Perhaps it's because of the toys, or perhaps it's because Austrians save money -- some their whole lives -- for their funerals. Farmers would buy their coffins during a good year when they had the cash and paint it to match their furniture, then use it as a bookshelf or wardrobe until they, you know, needed it. Having a savings account for your funeral or a coffin in your living room probably helps you get used to the idea of dying. "Old Viennese folk songs are all about wine and death," said Keller. "Death goes with you to the wine tavern and follows you home at night; it's your best friend."
The funeral is regarded as a festival, a goodbye party. People save their whole lives to throw a good one, so that they will be remembered for that last great party they gave. "You should tell people they can learn to die in Vienna," said Keller with a cheeky smile.
As I mentioned, you can only visit the Museum of the FSIV by appointment, so to make one, call 501-95-4227 (country code 43) or ask your concierge. If your German's pretty good, you can get more information here on the website. Alternatively, if you should happen to be in Vienna on the Long Night of the Museums (the first Saturday in October, when museums stay open late), you can test out the coffins. Literally. They'll put you in a coffin, close it, and leave you there until you knock. According to Keller, last year, 1,500 people did just that. The oldest was an 88-year-old woman. "The girls are much braver than the boys," he noted cheerfully.
My visit to Vienna was sponsored by the Vienna Tourist Board and Cool Capitals, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.