I find myself standing in front of Stephansdom, Vienna’s crowning cathedral. I am eagerly waiting for the clock to strike half one so I can make the slow descent into the catacombs.
Stephansdom doesn’t feel like a normal cathedral. Neither a celebration of god or of life, it feels more like a grim promise. A dutiful reminder. Skulls and slices of Memento Mori are scattered across its surface. A skull lingers above the clock. I read somewhere that this cathedral is under constant construction. They also say the devil once appeared within in. And indeed, between the twisting coral of its exterior and the black spots in places caused by creeping lichen, it seems almost ungodly.
But it is godly. This is The Old Testament God. It is all wrath and ruin and supreme power. Isaiah 13:9 writes: “Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it.” The styling is intentional. We will be scared into submission. In death we will all succumb.
I am, admittedly, more than just a little preoccupied with death. I think I always have been. I grew up on a diet of ghost stories and haunted mansions. The village graveyard was my favourite haunt. I relished retelling my spooky findings to my schoolmates each lunchtime. My imaginary friend George died in all manners of ways every day and woke anew each morning. I spied witches hiding in the brambles.
This interest in death stretched outwards. Like all teenagers made suddenly aware of both my aliveness and own mortality, I had my mandatory (and likely still continuing) emo period. I contemplated my extinction. Chose my funeral song (it was by Bright Eyes, of course). I agonised over whether I should be buried where I was born or in Spain, my adopted home. I craved and sought out abandoned spaces and buildings reclaimed by nature. I studied literature and philosophy. I got very well acquainted with the existentialists. I’m so enraptured with death in fact, I’m in the process of researching and eventually writing a book on the subject, so consider this essay a preview.
So why the obsession? I guess it’s because it’s the ultimate unknown. A poison chalice you can only taste upon your own ending. You can’t — EMF recordings be damned —explain it to the living. It’s beyond worlds, beyond words. Death is the singular truth for all existents. It unifies us across the ages: consuming centuries and class and wealth and powerlines of identity with it. It renders us all void. Null. Defunct. The absurdity of our small lives are spilled out onto the kitchen table.
Cultures offer different solutions. Explanations and interpretations of this unanswerable metaphysical question. And I believe that it is out of this morbid knowing, this aching truth, the very process of sitting with the inevitability of our own death cupped in both hands that pushes us to construct theologies and religions. These moral frameworks cushion us, comfort us, reunite us with our loved ones and bestow punishment or penance on undeserving souls.
We build giant skyscrapers to spite death. We numb ourselves to it and manically consume because we’re going to die one day anyway, right? So why the fuck not? We cling to celebrity to live on a little longer. We breed to keep some part of us still living. We build cathedrals and shrines in the hopes our gods will look more favourably on us when our time comes. We live to make our death worth it. We live to forget that we will one day die.
Every day is one day less. But for some reason, if you remind anyone of this inescapable march towards nothingness you’re seen as strange. Death is our final taboo. We don’t like to talk about it, despite it defining and shaping our lives: first through our unceremonious shove into existence (or “thrown” as my honey Heidegger likes to say), the gradual loss of all we love, before finally losing ourselves. Our death is easier. It’s always been easier to leave than be left. Those who remain have to contend with the gaping holes caused by a departure. In death or in absence, we have to relearn how to live without them.
It’s 1:30. I begin the tour from an entrance way crowded with tourists on one side and a large, bloodied Jesus impaled with arrows to the other. A few words are spoken and we are invited into the land of the dead. Our first stop is known as the ducal crypt; a narrow passage flanked by bronze urns harbouring the vital organs of dead Hapsburgs. Some plain, others ornate, most have a faint etching of lettering detailing the body it once belonged in.
In the Hapsburgs’ royal burial rites, each family member would be split into three parts. Their organs interred Stephansdom and their bodies in the Imperial Crypt, while their hearts are held in silver urns in the church closest to their old palace estate. This all sounds rather romantic, but it has more to do with pragmatism, politics and poor embalming techniques than it does ascention to the cosmos.
Now in the belly of the cathedral, old statues, gargoyles and creatures from the church exterior guard the dead, taking on the role of Cerberus. A monstrous beast with gnarled features stands near the entrance. Years of rain have worn away the sandstone, only adding to the grotesque appearance. And even in the beginning this monster was made to be ghastly. Gargoyles and grotesques were made to terrify an illiterate populace of the dangers of wandering from the flock. Creeping demons on cathedral walls compel us to seek safety inside. And they make a pretty good 90s cartoon.
Memento Mori found in graveyards across Europe and funereal maxims often centre on the sweet peace death delivers. The eternal slumber. Rest in peace. Sleep well, angel. But what happens when this deep sleep is disturbed? Disturbed being the crucial term here.
If we take folklore as a steward of culture — a kind of gatekeeper signalling Good and Bad behaviour, as stories that tell us about the values and virtues of a people, and warn us of the consequences of transgressing societal boundaries — we can understand the need to leave the dead to rest is two-fold. Almost every culture dictates a healthy respect for the dead and the wisdom of our now long-gone relatives. But because of the magic that lies in the liminality between life and death, superstition slips into the space between knowledge.
Whether it’s zombies, vampires or bad spirits, we all know not to disturb the dead. This is why the likes of grave robbing, tomb-desecrating or just general shit behaviour in a cemetery/place of memorial is condemned across the world. But respect has a short shelf life. And as we run out of space to bury the newly dead, we need to get creative with the storage of our corpses. This is how Vienna landed its own catacombs.
Next we pass a charnel house of anonymous and chaotic carcasses. I am struck by a shoe in amongst the skeletons. A fabric plimsole. It’s a kind of dark navy blue. It reminds me of the blonde lock that twisted my gut in a sea of black hair behind glass in Auschwitz. I am not immediately sure where it came from, or how it came to be here. Who would leave anything down here, push their items through the bars? But then my mind connects the dusty shoe to the mass just above it. The grey-white tibia it was once attached to.
The bodies here were shoved deeper into the ground to make space for the living twice over. First, as a measure against the Black Death, 11,000 bodies were relocated from cemeteries across Vienna and stacked in wooden boxes in the catacombs. The second — that saw them pressed ever further into the earth, into great pits, into the walls and crushed under the floor — was so that the vaulted space could be used as an air raid shelter during World War Two.
I am sure that upon first hearing that they could take shelter in the cathedral, the Viennese felt safe and secure in god’s light. In the winding unreality of the tunnels beneath that squirrel out under the square however, it must have seemed they were already in hell. And what a terrible waiting it must have been. Lingering with both feet in the grave. Staring death straight in its rotting eye sockets. Death so close you could smell it. Listening to the sirens and destruction and just hoping it would be quick and painless: a silent shot in the dark over the slow crushing of rubble.
But is this not the case all the world over? The dead are always being pushed aside for the living. Must we be so sentimental about death? Do we need to be so attached to the vessels we once inhabited? Like the infamous Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia says: “when I’m dead, just throw me in the trash.” Our attachment to our bodies is our attachment to living. It’s the shape we once took. The fleshy cage we occupy. The thing we loved and ached and felt through, but what if the body is just that? A sensory organ, a filter, a lens. A rich well of experiences, yes, but a means, not an end in itself.
If there is such thing as a transcendental and enduring self, where is it located in the body? Must it have a physical form? Is it hidden in our hearts, spinal cord or sinew? Or is it in our atoms, hidden at a quantum level? If we believe in attachment to our physical bodies, then what happens to them after life leaves them it is important. But if there’s nothing after, we won’t know any different. Funerals and burial rites are for the living. The dead care nothing for us now.
But if there is life after death, or at least awareness or some attachment between this world and the next, then what happens to us when our bones are scattered like this? In ghost stories we’re told of restless and unresolved souls. If this were true, these catacombs would be a cacophony of agonised cries.
Built into the walls, buried under the ground. Slaves were made to scrape off flesh and stack the bones together. Skulls are placed in artful locations to give the feeling of unnerving order. In other corners the bones have ceased to have any formulation at all. No signifiers to identify the flesh that once cloaked them. If the body is separate from the soul, then such an arrangement doesn’t matter. Should we still have some attachment to our tangible forms, then we may end up mangled and dislocated, dislodged and desperate.
Like a restless chimaera condemned to always wander, it is in this ossuary that we can better understand Egon Schiele’s paintings. His work is all tendon and sinew. An emancipated corpse searching for its self and soul through creeping dark hallways. All stripped of skin: bones pressed out through flesh, giving the appearance of a peeled man sprawled out on a mortician’s table.
For what is Schiele’s work if not an amalgamation of twisted bodies? Of bones barely concealed by decomposing skin, stacked high against the wall? There is a rare materiality in his work that appears breathing, despite the pale and rotting aesthetic. The decaying bodies seem like they could leak through the paint. Writhing, merging and static. Knotted in a perpetual state of shock or agony. Pleasure teased but never reached. One could imagine such deathly and warped bodies wandering the catacombs at night. I gulp and feel glad I will be granted asylum soon as I return to the daylight.
The tour spat me out into the bright light of the square. Disorientated and eyes adjusting, there is a moment of unrealness as you reacclimatise to the living and the moving, the feeling of sunlight on your skin. The reminder that yes you, unlike the thousands of others stacked up underground, get to escape the claustrophobia of the earth. At least for a little while.
I keep getting the impression I’m being dripped on, even outside of the caverns. My teeth chatter, although I am warm. I’m not sure what to do or where to go. I feel the sum of eleven thousand souls swimming beneath my feet. Instead, I settle on sitting on a bench and eating some apple strudel. Happy to be alive and aching, with legs that move and a leaky heart that’s still able to love and love and leave.