Monday, September 2, 2013

Memento Mori

So how was your Labor Day?  Had a few friends over; saw some family?  Me?  Oh, I spent the afternoon with a cryptful of dead Hapsburgs...

The Kaisergruft, which underpins the unassuming Capuchin church on a quiet corner of central Vienna, is a curious tourist attraction.  One enters the imperial crypt through an almost unmarked door that opens on what looks like the lobby of a rather stark two-star hotel.  One purchases a ticket from a woman with a permanent air of being surprised at the nature of her employment and proceeds through a maze of hallways and stairs that, with their terrazzo floors and simply painted walls, would not be out of a place in some lost corner of a third-tier ministry building.

The bureaucratic atmosphere continues even as one goes through a low door and into the first crypt, as the first room is as simple as any storeroom, although this room stores a rather more exalted set of boxes than most; later, things do get more funerarily elaborate.  A neat line of bronze caskets is separated from the visitors only by a low railing.  The tenants of the gruft are organized chronologically, so a long run of seventeenth century Hapsburgs starts the visit off, their coffins progressively more elaborate as time passes.  The heart of the complex is the vast tomb of the Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, who are depicting sitting up in bed on top of their enormous sarcophagus, as if Judgement Day were just another fine Vienna morning.  The cheerful gentleman above decorates a nearby monument, which I believe belongs to Maria Theresa's father.

All told, there are more than 140-odd members of the family, by birth or marriage, gathered together, along with one related only by affection - a governess to Maria Theresa's enormous family who was dragged in as if her duties were never finished and she had to chaperone the archduchesses from this world to the next.

It was rather a surprise to see poor Maximilian of Mexico halfway down one row (his Empress Carlota, born Charlotte of the Belgians, is a no-show, buried in her homeland).  The unhappy family of Franz Joseph are together, a mismatched trio unto eternity, and the crypt ends with handful of arrivals since the dynasty ended in 1918, including the Empress Zita (whose New York Times obituary, "Last Empress of Austria-Hungary, Zita, Is Dead in Switzerland at 96," carried a whiff of the long-vanished past when it appeared in 1989) and an empty pedestal that apparently awaits the Archduchess Yolande (a name which seems unlikely but is legit; she was like Carlota a Belgian princess) when her turn comes.  There doesn't seem to be much room beyond that, and perhaps when Yolande arrives, this most exclusive of retreats will be considered closed.

I've been fascinated by the Kaisergruft since I first read about it as a child (such a cheerful tot I was, too).  I was entranced by the ritual that accompanied each new occupant, a solemn rite of flickering torches and nodding black plumes, one that ended with the officer in charge of the procession confronting the cardinal-archbishop of Vienna at the crypt's closed gates.


"Who goes there?" answers the Cardinal, unfazed by the splendor and the torches.

"We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand Duke of Lombardy, Venezia, Styrgia..." - the list would have gone for a very long time, for the old gentleman who ruled Vienna for most of the nineteenth century had more than three-dozen titles, each more resplendent than the last.

"We know him not.  Who goes there?"

"The Emperor of Austria-Hungary!"

"We know him not.  Who goes there?"

"The body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all."

And only then did the heavy gates open, on emperor, empress, archduke, archduchess (and one governess) alike.

Even with its institutional entrance and exit corridors, the Kaisergruft is an undeniably splendid and thought-provoking place to see.  One's somber mood on going, though, is lifted by the indomitably cheerful greeting one receives on the way out:

And so one heads off for a nice piece of cake and a coffee mit Schlag somehow suitably consoled.  I recommend them all - crypt, pastry, coffee, and consolation - as an excellent way to better understand this curious metropolis in which I find myself.


  1. Did you pick up a snow globe? How was the cafe?

  2. Oh, it's a shockingly under-exploited commercial opportunity, if you ask me. Only a few dusty postcards despondently vended by the same lady who, with a startled air, sells you a ticket. In a city as kitsch-obsessed by this, I'm genuinely surprised you can't buy a nice assortment of Sissi-chocolates in a box shaped like the late Empress's casket or a tea cosy in the shape of Maria Theresa's stately monument, or for that matter satisfy a broad goth-metal-steampunk audience with crowned-skull tee-shirts.

    As for the possibility of a café - it's a goldmine waiting to happen. I'm half-tempted to write up a proposal for the Capuchin brothers' consideration. I'm thinking goulash in skull-shaped bowls, and possibly a nice slice of sachertorte to be eaten with little silver gravediggers' shovels...