Vienna is a city that knows how to die. The metropolis abounds with monuments and museums devoted to the rituals around death. A must-see for the morbid tourist is the Funeral Museum, or the Bestattungsmuseum. It’s located in Vienna’s seriously impressive Central Cemetery (next to a fantastic cafe as well!), and features a range of exhibits ranging from mourning attire to an entire hearse.
In the middle of the museum you’ll find, amongst a row of antique coffins, one coffin that stands out particularly: it looks normal from the top, but has a hinged bottom and flaps that open to presumably let the deceased drop into the grave. This contraption is a Sparsarg, which despite sounding like something from Ikea, translates variously to “community coffin,” “economy coffin,” or the “Josephine community coffin,” depending on who you ask.
The Sparsarg worked as you imagine: The shrouded body would be placed in the coffin over the open grave. After the service, the bottom of the coffin would be opened, and the shrouded body would fall in. Quicklime would be added to the top of the body to facilitate quicker decomposition, and the coffin would be taken away to be used for another soul.
In Germany, coffins were expensive and the Sparsarg was used frequently in the 16th and 17th century, especially for children as infant mortality was high. Parishes kept the re-usable coffins and provided them free of charge. Only the upper echelon were buried in individual coffins.
In Vienna, the story was very different. In 1785, the emperor Joseph II introduced the Sparsarg to the people. Joseph was a reformist emperor who had a lot of big ideas about the health and well-being of his subjects. He made the Sparsarg a legal requirement for all burials in Vienna. Remember, though, the ostentatious ritual and importance of death in Vienna. The population massively protested the requirement of the Sparsarg, calling it “godless,” and the emperor had to rescind his decree in just six months.
So where does Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart come in? One of the prevailing myths about the celebrated composer is that he was brutishly buried in a pauper’s grave with none of the fanfare that one of his genius and status would deserve. He is often described as being disposed of using a Sparsarg — this is depicted in numerous books as well as the film Amadeus. However, an understanding about Viennese funeral culture and burial practices is needed.
Mozart was buried in 1791 not in the Central Cemetery, but in St Marx Cemetery, in an unmarked and shared grave. It’s wrong to assume that this was a pauper’s grave, however. “Shaft graves” were popularly in use in Vienna, where numerous coffins were buried in one shaft in the ground. The graves in St. Marx are not normally marked, the cemetery instead featuring plaques and memorials on the surrounding walls. Evidence shows that the body of Mozart was taken to the church in a golden carriage, and the usual mass and requiem was held over his body before he was buried. So he was celebrated in death — and about the unmarked mass grave? Mozart was a fan of burial reform and would have probably approved of the situation. At any rate, that would be completely normal and expected at the time of his death.
But what about the re-usable coffin? Well, as we know from his death date, the Sparsarg was not a legal requirement at the time of his death. And the fact that he was transported alone to the cemetery, and laid in state for two days, lends itself to the idea that Mozart most likely did have his own coffin. People buried in shaft graves (which were in use in all the Viennese cemeteries) still had their own coffins. Although the Mozart’s were poor when Wolfgang died, and although no receipt for a coffin has ever been dug up (forgive the pun), there is no reason to believe the Hollywood myth of Mozart and the re-usable coffin.
You can visit the memorial for Mozart, oddly enough, in the Central Cemetery. He still isn’t there however; his body has never been conclusively recovered from St. Marx. Someone decided he should be memorialised in the composer’s section of the Central Cemetery, so now his romantic monument joins the likes of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and other big names in classical music. As it should be — but it would seem that Amadeus indeed took some secrets to the grave.
Stafford, William. The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment. Stanford University Press, 1991.