Five miles southeast of Vienna, Austria, lies the unique Wiener Zentralfriedhof (also called Vienna Central Cemetery). At over 600 acres and 3 million interments, Zentralfriedhof is not only Austria’s largest cemetery, but one of the largest cemeteries in the world.
It was planned quite purposefully in the late 1800s; the distance from the city allowed for Vienna’s expanding population, and the size would provide burial space for decades to come. The cemetery opened on All Saints’ Day (November 1) in 1874.
Zentralfriedhof’s distance from the city center left city authorities scrambling for a way to make it more appealing to an unconvinced public. This led to the introduction of Ehrengräber—the famous honorary graves that, combined with park-like gardens and wilderness areas, made what was once an out-of-the-way annoyance into a peaceful and inspiring attraction.
Notable among these are the classical composers, many of whom are found in the same section of the cemetery close to the main entrance at Tor 2. Perhaps the most famous is none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, composer extraordinaire. Having already been buried twice before—first in Währinger Ortsfriedhof after his death in 1827, then again in the same spot with an upgraded coffin—he was moved to Zentralfriedhof in 1888.
His grave is marked by a replica of his original monument (designed by fellow composer Ferdinand Schubert, brother to Franz Schubert), and it has remained here ever since as a tranquil spot to pause and reflect. Mark Brownlow of Visiting Vienna puts it beautifully: “In spring or summer, bask in the sunlight, close your eyes, and you might almost hear the opening bars of Für Elise drifting through the air.”
Mere steps away, you’ll find Franz Schubert’s gravesite. Schubert admired and respected Beethoven, and though they’d have known each other more by reputation than through interaction, he was in many ways a successor to his celebrated compatriot. Despite a nearly 30-year age difference between them, illness took Schubert’s life just one year later in November of 1828. Comments he made in his final, delirious moments indicated he thought he’d be buried near Beethoven. This was taken as a deathbed request, one that was granted with his original plot in Währinger Ortsfriedhof.
Schubert left behind a remarkable body of work for his 31 short years, most of which was only discovered and appreciated in the decades after his death. In fact, later composers like Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Brahms played a major role in bringing his musical contributions to light.
From his burial in 1828, the story of Schubert’s resting place follows a familiar path. He was reinterred in a more robust coffin in 1863; then, in 1888, his remains were relocated to the new “Central Cemetery”—in the plot next to Beethoven once more. When Währinger Ortsfriedhof eventually became a park, it was renamed Schubertpark in honor of his historical influence. Both composers’ original gravesites can still be visited there today.
Many other familiar names in classical music rest nearby. The aforementioned Johannes Brahms, another famed composer thought of as “Beethoven’s heir,” was buried here after his death in 1897. His gravestone features a bust of himself deep in thought, while musical muses dance in relief behind him. At the next grave, Johann Strauss and his wife, Adele, are memorialized with a marvelously detailed sculpture of a beautiful harpist, waltzing cherubs, and a portrait of Strauss at the center. There’s even a monument to honor Mozart, whose (disputed) gravesite location is somewhere in Sankt Marxer Friedhof.
And of course, there are more than just musicians here—this vast cemetery is a final resting place for artists, scientists, inventors, politicians, socialites, architects, and more. Spaces dedicated to the various faiths offer somber sanctuary in a busy world. Stunning family tombs, artistic gravestones, and the centrally located Church of St. Charles Borromeo are a visual feast among the lush greenery. And not least among the rest is the wide variety of wildlife that wander the grounds, including the elusive (and endangered) wild European hamster. A visit here would bring new discoveries at every turn, and they would surely be worth the walk.
Have you visited this incredible cemetery? Where would you go first? Let us know!