Last year, when I wrote about Halloween and the 1st November and our family’s pragmatic approach to dealing with it all, an approach that tried to balance expediency and piety, I had not expected that a wind of discontent would rise up and seek to take ownership of it all.
In the past we had always amicably decided on who would deal with tending the various graves around the city (this had been how I learned about the existence of my wife’s Hietzing/Meidling cousins), ensuring that our eldest and frailest family members would be able to feel comforted that everything was orderly and well attended to. Possibly the reason behind their interest was one that related to their own fears about their final resting place. Would we put them in the same grave as the cousin’s husband they didn’t like? Would they be in the cemetery that was windier than others? Justified concerns if you are spending an eternity in one. I can see why some prefer to have their ashes scattered.
Sister-in-law had warned us that she thought her cousin was plotting something (my British mind conjured up imagery of skulduggery and treason – too much reading about Guy Fawkes recently) and from her increasing agitation over the phone in the preceding week, we were expecting a dreadful coup and bloodbath.
Maybe somewhat cowardly of me to therefore choose friends before family, but it was a good ruse to be seen to be active in tending the graves of some of the less well remembered family members while others squabbled over the “richer pickings”. And with an eye on expediency I duly also decided to use the process to do a good turn for some of my near neighbours.
Most people think of Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof when they think of a cemetery. Of course there are far more cemeteries dotted around the city (Wiener Friedhöfe has some 46 cemeteries although nearly 60% of the graves are at the Zentralfriedhof), with the outer districts of Döbling, Hernals, Währing and Ottakring generously provided for in terms of cemeteries.
With the family taking an approach of maintaining all the graves that fall in a vast swathe from the 19th round to the 12th districts, apparently also due to various monumental fallings out in the last couple of generations, the graves are more thinly spread out than say concentrated on a couple of family plots or all within the confines of a single cemetery, and consequently this “legacy” project is one that occupies us frequently.
Fortunately, with a number of elderly neighbours, I ducked out of all the squabbling among my wife’s family, by arranging to take neighbours to the graves of their families, split between graveyards in Sievering and Döbling, and also tending the graves of a couple of isolated family members there, and placing and lighting new Grabkerzen at the respective sites, while my neighbours were able to sit and contemplate about their loved ones, and place flowers of their respective graves.
I’d been busy the day before collecting the ordered arrangements from the local florist and nursery – they do a roaring trade in the Weinberggasse. And I also picked up what I thought would be enough Grabkerzen to also cover all the graves I needed to. I channelled my inner Austrian, kitting out the boot of the car with the requisite flowers, candles and lighters, since not all cemeteries offer a one-stop shop for hurried mourning relatives. With elderly neighbours 1 and 2 carefully deposited back at home having paid their respects in Sievering and Döbling Friedhöfe and I having quickly weeded three family graves between the two sites and lit candles in remembrance of two family black sheep and a distant cousin (so distant that the degree of relationship was something like a third cousin twice removed) and duly took photos to pass onto the others – at the insistence of my sister-in-law who felt it necessary to pass on proof that we were doing our bit rather than for “remote mourning purposes”. I then picked up an old friend and his mother to take them off to the cemeteries in Hernals and Ottakring.
I quite like the prospect of being buried, should Vienna prove to be my final resting place, at the Friedhof Hernals. The cemetery is terraced into the side of the hill behind the Sport Club stadium, and a view of the football and international rugby would be a nice one, with the cemetery rising up behind the Friedhofstribüne. Whether I’d be buried with my wife’s grandparents and aunt who died in infancy just after the end of World War I there is another issue, as it would feel a bit like sleeping on the sofa in a stranger’s house and outstaying one’s welcome.
The final stop on my graveyard tour was the Friedhof Ottakring, to check out a grand uncle of my wife’s grave, which seems to be a keen target for birds, and the grave will definitely need some attention. From what I can make out he was possibly a spiv or racketeer – usually there is an awkward silence when his name is mentioned, and in my mind the Harry Lime theme goes off at the mention of his name. But then again maybe I am doing him a disservice.
Duty done, I hastily repared to my sister-in-law’s where everyone was clustered around the desk in the Atelier trying to work out who had tended which grave and for how long, as well as which plots need renewing. In Vienna you frequently have to renew every ten years, and one neighbour told me on the way home that she was a bit shocked to see the neighbouring plot to her husband’s desolate, with the headstone removed.
Back at the family pow-wow a couple of relatives who I think I might have only seen once before at a family funeral were getting pretty agitated, although it was a case of wife dictating the terms and sheepish husband dutifully nodding and adding “Ja, Schatzi!” at appropriate intervals. The chances were that he’d have far rather been minding his business in his Schrebergarten or dare I say it the Wirtshaus. Two elderly relatives had said they were now too old to coordinate all the paperwork for the graves (both are 80+ and no longer in the rudest of health) and this had led to accusations that not everyone in the family was pulling their weight either in terms of contributions in kind or financial ones. Given my apparent success in getting “the nephew” back on track financially, and my attention to several family graves while they bickered, it was thought that my wife and I would be best suited to the task of administering the plots at a number of graveyards. My sister-in-law also described me as an “Organisationstalent” a word that I tend to view with a tinge of irony and consider as being more along the line of “jobsworth”. Nevertheless, for the want of a quiet life for my wife and me, I loaded the piles of papers into the car, and will attack them with vigour as soon as the weather becomes more autumnal, rather than being in the low 20s most days.
Once the truce had been signed, and the pipe of peace smoked (or at least in the case of a few of the assembled a few cigarettes for their nerves) most relatives dispersed. I made myself useful in picking up elderly aunt, while my wife and her sister finished off preparing a Martinigansl. Goose and some good wine and a cake that elderly aunt had brought with her meant that there was a calm after the storm. I left the car at my sister’s and we got the Schnellbahn home. We picked up the car the next day in glorious sunshine and the pile of papers was brought in to the dining table, where it remains untackled. This evening’s task is apparent. One thing is for certain, dealing with death and graves like this is very Viennese, as my friends confirmed when we met over the weekend. Maybe cremation and scattering of ashes might be a better plan after all.