The city break that satisfied my midlife fascination with mortality

I’m in mid-life and thoughts of mortality, my own and those of loved ones, have a way of smothering my inherent exuberance. Travel experiences branded as rejuvenating – the ones I once ran towards – can feel distancing. So, on a trip to Vienna, it is oddly comforting to discover a culture as much at home with the spectre of death as it is glittering ballrooms and handsome coffeehouses.

“The Viennese character is inherently melancholic,” says Klaus Pokorny, of the Leopold Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of Austrian modern art. “Perhaps it has something to do with the waves of emigration the city has experienced, and that feeling of impermanence,” he explains, referring to those who between two world wars, fled, either for economic reasons or to escape Nazi persecution.

I’ve come here to see Death and Life, the iconic painting by Gustav Klimt, a depiction of the human cycle of life, completed in 1915. (The Kiss, if you’re in a sunnier mood, is down the road at The Belvedere museum. ) “Can you see the crosses embedded in the death figure?” asks Pokorny, as we approach it. I peer at the grinning skull of the grim reaper, cudgel in hand, his cloak covered in what look like tiny coffins. He appears to be stalking a dreamlike group of figures, to his right, who represent life.

A few floors down hang the works of Klimt’s mentee, artist Egon Schiele, who shared a similarly keen sense of the brevity of life. The figures in his paintings – many of them self-portraits – are dark, contorted and grotesque. They are, I venture, suggestive of an artist haunted by existential dread. “Schiele had visions of death,” nods Pokorny. He tells me that Schiele, like Klimt, succumbed to Spanish flu in 1918.

The following day, I take tram 71 to the Vienna Central Cemetery, Europe’s second largest. Far from central, it is a 30-minute ride through the city’s south-eastern suburbs. It opened in 1874 to accommodate the mortal remains of urbanites in a fast-growing city, when the only way to reach it was by horse-drawn cart (or an exceedingly long walk). When the tram came along, it was used to transport corpses that had fallen from Spanish flu.

“We often joke about a ride on the 71 being a one-way journey”, says Katharina Mölk, an expert in all things funerary who has joined me for the morning. She tells me that the Viennese love to visit the cemetery at weekends and treat it like a park visit.

“It’s so big it has its own bus route. You can even hire bikes to cycle in it,” she says as we fortify ourselves with coffee and strudel at the cemetery’s coffeehouse. (Never underestimate the Viennese passion for coffee and cake.)

Gustav Klimt, Leopold Museum - exhibition view Painting
Gustav Klimt ‘Death and Life’ at the Leopold Museum (Photo: Leopold Museum Wien/Katharina Koberger)

The multi-faith cemetery, where more than three million bodies are buried, is big on pomp. The elaborate arcade tombs, memorial headstones and coffins that fan out along expansive tree-lined avenues not only offer a resting place for the deceased, but also ensure their egos are not forgotten either.

“Vienna was once the residence of the Emperor, so it was filled with noble people, and status in life and death mattered,” says Katharina, as we pause in front of a cluster of elegant graves, amid trees and flowers. Among them rest Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert and Mozart – or rather a memorial marker for the latter, whose remains lie across town at the Marx cemetery.

Further on, the grave of Falco, he of “Rock Me Amadeus” fame and Austria’s biggest pop music export, features a glass pane. Etched on it is a black-cape clad likeness of the singer, his arms spread wide, looking for all the world like a cross between Darth Vader and Dracula.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the gravestone of sculptor Alfred Hardlicka’s widow. On it, he created a risqué sculpture of her copulating with a skeletal figure – “She’s cheating on him with death,” quips my guide, as a jogger silently dashes past.

The fashion for extravagance and caprice is likely to be rooted in the tastes of the Hapsburgs, the dynasty that ruled Austria for more than 600 years. They have their own resting place in the city centre, the Capuchins’ Crypt. There, near Stephansdom Cathedral, the ornate sarcophagi speak of untold wealth and power. There’s even a word for it, Schöne Leich – “a beautiful corpse.” Their ostentatious funerals culminated with the last empress, Zita in 1989.

A deer stands between tombstones at the Vienna central cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) on October 25, 2020. (Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH/APA/AFP via Getty Images)
A deer between tombstones at the Vienna central cemetery (Photo: Georg Hochumuth/AFP)

Within the grounds of the cemetery, there is the Funeral Museum, fittingly in a gloomy basement. The first things I spot are Lego figures of pallbearers and a coffin – a little welcome black humour. Do children really want to play with toys like this, I wonder? “Of course! It’s a great way to get them to understand life and death,” says Katharina.

Here too are macabre death masks of yore, and diamond and other jewellery made from ashes. Should you wish, you could wear the remains of your beloved on a ring or a pendant around your neck. The museum is especially popular on All Saint’s eve, Katharina tells me. “People cue up to lie in an open coffin and have their picture taken.” Death, it would seem, becomes, many.

Back in the fresh air, the nature lover in me is gratified to hear that wildlife thrives in the cemetery – it’s home to deer, foxes, badgers and European hamsters, none of which I spot, though the crows cawing overhead make their presence known.

Away from the graves, we wander into the Park of Peace and Strength. Designed using arcane principles of geomancy, a trail of sorts leads us through a small meadow to mini-stone circles, pyramidal-shaped sculptures, “energy points” and flowing water channels, all intended to soothe the bereaved. Healing in life and honour in death – I can’t help but admire the Viennese for their attentiveness to the human condition.

Getting there

Return train tickets from London to Vienna from £280 per person (changes at Brussels and Frankfurt) with Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn.

Return flights from London to Vienna from £34 per person with Ryanair or £128 per person with British Airways.

Staying there

The Leo Grand has doubles from €350, theleogrand.com/en

Where to visit

The Vienna City Card acts as a travel card and offers discounts on museums and attractions, viennacitycard.at Leopold Museum, leopoldmuseum.org/en/collection

Katharina Molk charges €200 for half-day private tours of the Central Cemetery and Funeral museum in English, im-auftrag-ihrer-majestaet.at/english

Vienna Central Cemetery, friedhoefewien.at/zentralfriedhof

Funeral Museum, entry €9, bestattungsmuseum.at

More information

wien.info/en