We are in Vienna. Many tourists who come to the Austrian capital visit the Zentralfriedhof, the Central Cemetery, which is the city’s largest and most popular cemetery, the final home of personalities such as Ludwig Van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Johan Strauss but also more modern celebrities like pop star Falco.
However, among the 55 cemeteries in Vienna, one of the most touching and quaint is probably the Friedhof Der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless.
Suicide victims who turned away from a Catholic burial, bodies with no names fished out of the Danube. That’s who lies resting in this hard-to-find cemetery.
Before the nearby harbour (Alberner Hafen) on the edge of Vienna was built, this spot was a place where the currents of the Danube frequently washed up corpses floating in its waters. Since 1840 such macabre finds were given a semi-decent burial here, with an average almost one a month.
The cemetery was originally opened in 1840 and subsequently, following repeated floodings and the construction of a dyke, expanded in 1900. In 1935, a small, modernist graveyard chapel (built by architect Karl Franz Eder) encompassed by rosebushes was built on top of a hill between the two parts of the cemetery and if the older part lies abandoned behind the embankment, overgrown by bushes and trees, the new section is surrounded by a small wall and has been taken care of by the family of Josef Fuchs, previously volunteer gravedigger until 1939, who carried on looking after the place until his own death in 1996. His son (Josef Fuchs jr.) has since taken over the task.
Up until 1900, 478 unidentified people were buried there, many of whom drowned in the Danube or committed suicide, thus denied a Christian burial by the Catholic church in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, Zentralfriedhof. The new part of the cemetery is the last resting place for another 104 dead, 61 of whom remained unidentified and most of whom the river’s current brought ashore nearby due to the junction of the Danube Canal and the Danube itself.
The last nameless body was buried in the cemetery in 1940, and the next victims of the river were buried in the Central Cemetery. In addition, due to the 1939 construction and expansion of the Alberner Hafen, an industrial harbor, the currents in the Danube have changed: its waters no longer swirling debris of any kind ashore and its victims no longer given up so easily.
Although it is considered to be part of the 11th district of Simmering, the cemetery is quite far from the center of Vienna and the fact that it is rather difficult to get there makes the cemetery a place little visited. However the inclusion of the romantic and sad setting in the popular film “Before Sunrise”, which was largely shot in Vienna, has meant that fans of the film often make a trip out among its graves.
The corpses were buried in wooden coffins, which were donated by a carpenter’s workshop. Forty-two of them were eventually identified by family members but the final resting places of most consist only of a bundle of mournful flowers and a simple black crosses made of cast iron, adorned with the inscription “namenlos” (“unknown” or “nameless”), each featuring a silvery crucifix.
Yet it’s this general uniformity that constitutes one salient element of the atmosphere of the cemetery along with its contrast like the individualization of some of the graves: not all those buried here have actually remained nameless, so you can also pick up fragments of the dead’s stories. One grave is for a man who was from Hamburg, but what brought him down here from far away northern Germany we are not told. Another sign specifies the cause of death as “drowned during the construction of the harbour” (original: “ertrunken beim Bau des Hafens“). One of the grave that stands out is that of a person named Wilhelm Töhn, which further specifies him as: “ertrunken durch fremde Hand im 11. Lebensjahr“, which very roughly (there’s no direct equivalent) translates as “drowned by the hand of a stranger at the age of 11“. That is to say that this is the grave of a victim of a child murderer.
In most cases, however, the cause of death was suicide, only that could not be marked on the crosses (because Austria is a Catholic country). There are also a couple of proper headstones instead of the usual iron cross, and one of them marks the grave of probably the only person ever voluntarily buried here: the former landlord of the nearby inn.
However, following tradition, on All Saint’s Day (November 1) the nameless are remembered. Some fishermen from the Albern area keep an old tradition alive by building a raft decorated with flowers and bearing a commemorative inscription in German, Hungarian and Slovak for the victims of the Danube, including a note politely asking that the raft be given a push back into the flowing water should it be found entangled in reeds or tree roots along the riverbanks anywhere, so that it can continue its journey downstream, past Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary, and beyond.
The raft is then floated on the river while a band plays and then left to follow the slow currents downstream, in a similar way to which the bodies of the nameless originally arrived.
Located in Simmering at the Alberner Hafen, at the junction of Danube and the Donaukanal (Danube Canal), the Friedhof Der Namenlosen is quite difficult to find, an unexpected gem hidden behind an industrial estate, two gigantic grain warehouses and equally enormous silos.
Images from Web.