Viennese speed-grieving in times of (impending) Corona lockdown

As I write, on the twenty-eighth day of the eleventh month in this two thousand and twentieth year of our Lord, or of the Common Era, depending on how you message the epoch, I am reminded that it is now the twelfth day of the second lockdown or about the twenty-seventh day of the lockdown that you could can’t call a lockdown in this year of Covid-19.

I write this by aid of electric light, in a quiet home in suburban Vienna. I have spent a most evenings recently detaching from the media, and actively avoiding coverage of the Presidential Elections and subsequent that have been held in the New World. All is calm and quiet, and things are getting back to normal after the terrorist attack at the start of the month here in Vienna, my adopted home.

Even before the events of those few short minutes (although I am sure they felt like an eternity for those whose families were unable to reach them) I was starting to go into a hermit-like lockdown state. As I finished my project to provide Christmas Cheer to those most needing it, and gradually reclaimed the spare room that had become a Christmas factory staffed by a near geriatric elf, my attentions turned to the annual rigmarole of Allerheiligen grieving. I was glad to have a new focus for my attentions as I had worked my way through many hours of podcasts in the background as I made up my shoe boxes of festive cheer.

As long-standing readers know, November begins in Austria with “Allerheiligen”, which this year fell on a Sunday. My family by marriage traditionally holds an annual powwow – a meal and a chat, of for me presenting of the accounts for all the family graves in my position as Chief Financial Grief Officer (I’m sure that is a proper title) . In past installments there have been feuds, arguments, tetchiness, demonstratively crossed arms and icy silences that have a Siberian chill to them. And squabbles over who owes who how much.

It all began as a cup of coffee and settling up the outgoings for tending the graves of their deceased relatives, in some cases a convenient way to exchange Christmas presents, and also to talk about the conditions of the frailest of the clan. I remember in the last nineties, being entrusted to take a photo on a very early digital camera (it was a Sony that saved onto floppy discs that my wife’s cousin had brought home from work). Now in 2020, as speed grieving was centralised/delegated to me, due to the fact that several members of the Grief Committee were “shielding” and others in various states of isolation and quarantine, I was requested to perform the role of Acting Chief Executive Grief Officer and Chief Operating Grief Officer and to also record proceedings with smartphone pictures.

Grieving, or maybe tending to graves, now has a digital dimension. This has also been the year of streamed funerals. At least live streaming is more tasteful than passing on a video/DVD of a funeral (exit through the gift shop) and allows those to grief who want to, even when rules and regulations prevent them from physically doing so. That is Grieving 2.0. And fortunately undertakers seem more tech savvy than most, although I did attend one where the PowerPoint presentation froze. The irony was not lost on a couple of his colleagues, who said at the Zoom wake afterwards that he’d been a passionate user of PowerPoint, when they worked with him.

The issue arises of course about how to conduct acts of remembrance in these difficult times. My brother tends to my parents’ grave and dutifully sends me a picture of the flowers he puts down on their wedding anniversary, or the anniversaries of their deaths. It is done with sensitivity and taste. Some years I have tried to time a trip to the UK to coincide with it, and if the planets really align, our kid sister has been known to join from whichever part of the Iberian Peninsula she has been living in. But it is done at a slow pace. The picture invariably gets sent a couple of days later, pre-heralded by an SMS announcing that a picture is on its way.

Austria, possibly due to it being a Catholic country, has a different level and culture of grieving. I found myself having to take over grieving for the team. Austrian cemeteries have flower shops and stone masons next door to make it possible to tear up to a cemetery in a hurry, grab a wreath, a candle, and head to the grave with decorum, not looking like you’d forgotten.

But of course there are queues, as everyone else relies on the same services. And with memories of the accounting woes that used to unfold within the family grief pow-wow (reimbursement to the cent) maybe it is better that I have become the autocratic executor, who does everything and allows the family to sleep well knowing that the wreaths were done, the plots renewed, the candles lit, and then as soon as the wreaths start to look past their best, duly cleared away, making them feel better. Although possibly some take me for granted.

On the 16th, I duly received a message from one of my wife’s cousins asking “if I had remembered to remove the candles and wreath vestiges by 14th, as she knows the person whose parents are buried in the adjacent grave and wouldn’t like them to get the wrong impression”. Fortunately I had that all planned too, although I did mutter “So eine Frechheit!” as my wife read me the message she had received to remind me as I hadn’t responded to the original message within about 30 minutes. Unfortunately her response “yes, he did!” opened up a barrage of questions culminating in whether I had been wearing a hat when I went and whether I had removed it when tending the grave (I had. As a civilian son of a military father, I knew how to be respectful from an early age). Yesterday’s message was the icing on the cake, as she asked when she’d receive a filled out Erlagschein (paying-in slip) to be able to reimburse me.

I will confess that while I did manage to visit all the graveyards on Allerheiligen (as duly confirmed by the file names of the photos sent to the respective outlaws) in a dignified manner, I did leave some wreaths on graves a day longer than at others, and did dare to combine removing wreaths with contactlessly dropping off stuff to people.

One thing I can’t get is how people can visit a grave and flick the grief switch off within ten seconds of leaving the grave. I heard two youths walking towards the exit of the cemetery comparing notes about the girls they had been messaging ahead of lockdown on some dating app and the risqué pictures they had exchanged. Is nothing sacred?

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