Peace Among The Ashes

Sankt Marx bestows peace on both the dead and the living

Usually, I make a point of avoiding cemeteries, preferring the company of the animated Prater or the human density of Kärntnerstraße than that special plot of land commemorating the last thing we’ll ever do.

So it’s hard to say why, when a bright April Saturday rolled around, I skipped out on a Donau bike trip to visit one of Vienna’s most famous burial grounds, Friedhof Sankt Marx on Leberstraße. Maybe it was my penchant for irony; seeking out a memorial to death on one of the nicest spring days we’d had thus far.  Maybe it all stemmed from the idyllic picture of Mozart’s grave at Sankt Marx that I knew so well from my well-thumbed tourist guide. All I know is that the minute I stepped through the stone gateway, the clamor of traffic from the nearby highway became a waning echo in my ears, and the bike trip a dim memory.

What I saw before me were not the dull, mottled gravestones I was expecting: there were intricate patterns of light dancing on stone, nestled in green pillows of grass, and adorned with pearly blossoms from the nearby trees. A simple, gravel path beginning at the front gate divided the cemetery in two, fringed by park benches occupied with quiet, elderly couples.  Devoid of that cultivated, manicured perfection of so many gardens and man-manipulated landscapes, St. Marx’s preserves the integrity of the graves by preventing overgrowth, but allowing the grass and shrubs to stretch their roots a little. The result is a remarkably natural, pastoral environment in the heart of the city.

In the gentle, mid-afternoon light, I felt strangely at peace—and very much alive despite my proximity to mortality. The gravestones didn’t stand out as blatant statements of death, but gentle reminders that all things must come to an end.

Looking closer at some of the stones, I noticed the phrase, “Friede Ihre Asche,” Peace be her Ashes, inscribed on the front of many.  I repeated it to myself under my breath, the light, trilling “fr” sound accompanied by the lulling “shh”, soothing by merit of sound alone. In light of the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland, I wished that all ashes could be as peaceful as the ones interred here at St. Marx. The eruption had shut down a majority of continental Europe’s airports, wringing stress and stretched credit cards out of stranded travelers everywhere.

At the time, I saw no silver lining in that gigantic ash cloud, but as the situation improved, I realize it wasn’t a wholly negative occurrence. Many of my friends who had originally made weekend travel plans were forced to stay in town, and for the first time in months, we all converged at the same nightclub. Having previously split off into our own little social pockets, it was a refreshing change to all be together once more.

Togetherness was certainly on my mind as I walked past countless stones of family members, resting together forever.

But what of Mozart’s grave, the key attraction of St. Marx? I followed a group of animated Japanese men up the slight gravel incline, their speech unintelligible to me but for the universal, hallowed name of Mozart that flew reverently from their lips every few seconds. After reaching the white, almost ethereal monument, guarded by an angel in mourning, they fell silent.  After dutifully snapping a few pictures, they began to examine the deep red tulips just beyond the grave.  One of the men knelt down on one knee, to better observe the flower’s silky petals up close.  His companions followed suit, and soon it was just myself standing in front of Mozart.

It dawned on me that perhaps my Japanese companions were victims themselves of the volcano’s ash cloud, expected home days ago, missing their families, and working long-distance through their laptops.  Their lives are probably frantic right now, but here they were, ash cloud, work, and flight plans forgotten, enjoying the beauty of a spring day in one of Vienna’s hidden bowers.

It’s easy to underestimate the effect a cemetery can have on the living, as I once did, seeking out more action-packed settings instead.  Perhaps my Japanese companions visited St. Marx to get a glimpse of the great composer’s final resting place…

But then again, maybe St. Marx was calling to them after all, giving them an afternoon of much-needed peace.

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