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Austria’s capital harbours a morbid fascination with the grisly and gruesome. We prove it with a visit to some scary sights

For centuries, the Viennese have derived a macabre pleasure from death. Sigmund Freud, founding father of psychoanalysis – and arguably Vienna’s most celebrated resident – famously claimed that “the aim of all life is death”, so it seems ironic that the Austrian capital has been repeatedly ranked as the best city in the world to live in.

Somehow, years of therapy have managed to instil in me a Pavlovian-like response to the call of the weird, so naturally I’m compelled to visit Vienna to explore its enduring fascination with the dead.

What better place to begin than at Bestattung Wien, HQ of the world’s first ever Funeral Museum? I meet Dr Wittigo Keller, museum curator, funeral enthusiast and designer of the ‘sitting-up coffin’, which received mixed reactions at the 2001 International Funeral Fair.

“Yes, it wasn’t so practical,” he concedes.

It’s not uncommon in Vienna to start saving up for your funeral from a young age, with even the poorest willing to pay vast sums to ensure a spectacular final hoorah. It’s a worthy investment in Dr Keller’s opinion. “After all,” he points out, “the coffin you pick will be your last apartment for all eternity.”

Whilst an unusually high proportion of Viennese prefer a traditional burial – according to Dr Keller, around 25 per cent of Viennese choose to be cremated, while the European average ranges between 60 and 80 per cent – he has noted a recent upsurge in clients choosing to have the ashes of loved ones sent to Switzerland, where they are transformed into diamonds under extreme heat and pressure. A one-carat diamond takes about 18 months to produce and costs in the region of £12,500. A single person’s ashes can yield up to seven diamonds, which are then incorporated into rings and pendants, though anything goes: “One time we even turned a grandmother into a navel piercing,” Dr Keller declares.

For those who wish to continue serving humanity after death, there is the Narrenturm (Fools’ Tower). Designed to accommodate the mentally ill, it is now home to Vienna’s Pathologic-Anatomical Museum, displaying the body parts of people dating back to the 1700s, and presenting visitors with every medical curiosity imaginable.

Jostling for space in the glass cabinets are amputated limbs crawling with varicose veins, boils and painful-looking skin conditions. There is a collection of centuries-old aborted foetuses, and a special display of conjoined animal skulls – I even see a pair of Siamese housecats with eight legs.

A woman’s stomach, filled with the several dozen rusty nails she swallowed, makes me wince, but doesn’t prepare me for the sight of the severed penis and testicles of one particularly unfortunate man, whose genitals swelled up to resemble a giant aubergine after a disgruntled horse kicked up a fuss as he attempted to remove its shoe. I marvel at the world’s largest collection of kidney stones and gallstones, many of which are bigger than the boiled egg I ate for breakfast, and start to feel a little queasy when I see an 18th-century man’s head, covered in bobbly growths.

On my final day I decide that, as much as I want to visit the Contraception and Abortion Museum, it’s far too nice out to stay indoors, so I head to Zentralfriedhof, the city’s Central Cemetery, which I have heard houses more bodies than the entire living population of Vienna.

At 2.4 sqkm, it’s one of the world’s largest cemeteries, yet it feels strangely intimate. I stroll along the paths taking in neat rows of tombstones and mausoleums. The atmosphere is very laidback: I see families, young couples ambling hand-in-hand enjoying the scenery, and spot an elderly pair laden down with buckets and spades, a rug, and a picnic basket, looking as though they are off on a trip to the seaside.

Sitting down against a tree, I close my eyes and listen to the birds chirping. Relaxing alone here in the sunshine, this is the happiest I’ve felt in a long time. It’s hardly the most conventional of places, but I appear to have found bliss in
a cemetery in Vienna, surrounded by several million corpses. My shrink is going to have a field day. Z

More on the Funeral Museum at bestattungwien.at; the Pathologic-Anatomical Museum at narrenturm.at; and the Central Cemetery at zentralfriedhof.info. More on Vienna at wien.info

Read on for our recommendations of the best places to eat, drink and sleep


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The dead zone - we visit the scary sights of Vienna
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