Cemetery of the Nameless

Caretaker Josef Fuchs is dedicated to the lives of the many who died in obscurity

On The Town | Sanya Gain | October 2007

A few gravestones at the Cemetery of the Nameless, where 478 unidentified bodies are buried (Photo: Sagen Austria)

Sitting in the back of the car, I realised I was nervous.  We were on our way to the Cemetery of the Nameless where I was to interview the curator, and well, I’m not very comfortable in graveyards. Perhaps it’s the presence of death, perhaps the loneliness. Maybe I’ve just watched too many horror movies.

What should I expect? Would it be sinister and scary? Or would it not even be as special as I thought? Anyway, I was relieved not to go there on my own.

Located in Simmering at the Alberner Hafen, this place is very hard to find. There are very few signposts, and we passed several of those small side roads that make you sure you’ve gone the wrong way. When we drove through the village of Albern – where there is no human life and no animal life, simply no life of any kind – I felt goose bumps up my arms.

After passing several silos we’d been told to watch for, I spotted caretaker Josef Fuchs, who looked everything but what I had imagined. A tall man with a moustache and an open, friendly face, he greeted us warmly and led us off down the path into the graveyard where the bodies of some 478 unidentified people are buried, many of whom drowned in mysterious circumstances in the swirling waters of a whirlpool nearby. I shivered.

Creepy or not, the Cemetery of the Nameless is actually a very beautiful place.

Originally one of two graveyards, the first was built in 1840 and destroyed several times because of flooding, the second was built in 1900, in a better position on the other side of the canal.

"My grandfather was the chief gendarme at the time the first drowned bodies were found here," Fuchs told us, "so he always had to come over for investigations. He then decided to take care of this place, in honor for those poor dead people who either committed suicide or whose bodies were in such bad condition that there was just no way to identify them or find their relatives," Josef Fuchs said.

So it became a family tradition: Fuch’s grandfather passed it on to his son and daughter-in-laws, who passed it down to Fuchs.

"And I bring my kids here," Fuchs said, proudly, "They love helping me care for it."

On top of a little hill, a chapel is built at which sides stone steps lead the way down to a small path. Following it, surrounded by grass and flowers, the actual graveyard can be seen. Sitting on the steps in front of the graves and hearing him talking, I look around noticing how lovely this place is kept. You could say that it was a love for detail.

He decorated this place having put burning candles burn in the small chapel or placing the booklet with all the information about the history of the graveyard and pictures of Fuchs’s grandfather in the entrance of the chapel. He has also decorated small bouquets of flowers here and there, and in the mortuary, there is an empty wooden coffin but which is also decorated with fresh flowers, as if for a real funeral. This place has, in fact, a romantic feel, idyllic even, very quiet, here and there you hear the birds sing and sometimes far away the trucks going to the silos.

The crosses on the graves are made of cast iron which Josef Fuchs Senior received from the Zentralfriedhof each time a grave was shut down there. The colours in which all the crosses are kept, black with a bit of silver decoration, were however the choice of Josef Fuchs Senior with the intention of giving all buried people the same honour, not favouring one over the other and therefore making this a unity. On most of the black signs attached to the crosses, one can read in white letters words like nameless or death at the hand of person or persons unknown.

In 1953 a wall was build around the graveyard and a chapel was added. The cemetery is sustained by voluntary donations and is visited by people from all over the world – even before it served as a setting in Richard Linklater’s popular film Before Sunrise, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply.

Flowers are laid on the graves by visitors as are toys on the graves of two children, a baby and an eleven year old boy, who were murdered and thrown into the Danube.

"I know of all the destinies that lie here and stories like these touch me very much," Fuchs said. "And naturally the more you go into something the more important it is for you."

So it is a shock for him when he has to deal with cases of desecration of the graves, something that happens every now and then.

"We try to restore everything as quickly as possible, and we have never found out who does it" he said. And even if they were caught, the worst that would happen would be that they would have to pay a fine.

"What is the fun of destroying something like a grave?" he wonders. "Each of these people had a tough life, I’m sure, or they would not be lying here. They should just be allowed to rest in peace".

Today no more people are buried here, as due to the building of the silos, the whirlpool changed its stream direction. The last burial took place in 1940, a middle aged woman who presumably committed suicide.

Back in the car, I thought about what I had seen. The hollow feeling I had expected before coming never materialized. Instead, I was positively surprised and taken by this small but beautiful place that has been taken care of with so much love in every detail, for so many generations. I thought about the grandfather. At the time the first dead bodies were found here, the Catholic Church refused burials for many of them because they had committed suicide. How brave this man must have been to take the initiative. And how committed  his family to have continued his work.

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    the vienna review October 2007