Jul 1, 2013

Mozart and the Myth of Reusable Coffins

The ineradicably popular conception that Mozart's body was sewn into a linen bag, put into a reusable coffin with flaps on the bottom and buried in a mass grave is based on two memorable visual impressions. First, there is is the following scene from the movie "Amadeus":


Second, there is the following wooden exhibit in the "Funeral Museum Vienna":


Of course the iconic scene from the movie is already the result of a grave misunderstanding, created by poorly informed historians and authors such as Volkmar Braunbehrens, who in his book Mozart in Vienna mixed together all kinds of second-hand information and turned it into a deeply flawed description of Mozart's burial "in a mass grave". The most fundamental misconceptions regarding this topic can be traced back to the Josephinische Begräbnisordnung of 1784 (the burial regulations of Joseph II). Joseph II, who (possibly caused by a severe mother-son-relationship issue) abhorred all kinds of religious pageantry and superfluous irrational customs, for the plain reason of sanitariness wanted to shorten the decomposition time of buried bodies. Therefore on 23 August 1784 he issued the following court decree:
  1. From now on all crypts, cemeteries and graveyards which are located within the limits of villages shall be closed and instead only those should be used that are located outside the villages within reasonable distance.
  2. Following the last will of the deceased or the the wishes of the relatives all bodies should be carried to the churches by day or in the evening according to the regulation of burial fees and funeral cortege, be consecrated and laid to rest with the usual church prayers and then be brought by the parish priests to the chosen cemeteries outside the villages to be buried without ostentation.
  3. For these cemeteries a place of appropriate size is to be chosen which is not exposed to water and whose soil is not of a type that prevents decomposition. After the area has been selected it should be surrounded with a wall and adorned with a cross.
  4. Since the burial can serve no other pupose than to further the quickest possible decomposition, which is prevented by nothing more than the burial of bodies in coffins: thus it is commanded that the bodies should be sewn into a linen bag, completely naked and without clothes, then put into a coffin and be transported to the graveyard.
  5. In these cemeteries there should always be made a pit with a depth of six Schuh [one Austrian Schuh was 12,6 inches] and a width of four Schuh, the body should always be taken out of the coffin and put into the pit, as it is sewn in the bag, be covered with quicklime and immediately be covered with soil. In case several bodies arrive at the same time, they can be put into the same pit, but at anytime it is to be observed that every pit into which the bodies have been put be immediately filled and covered with soil, which must be continued in such a way that there is always a space of four Schuh between the graves.
  6. To cut expenses it has to be arranged that every parish acquires an appropriate number of well-made coffins of various sizes which must be provided to everybody for free; if somebody should provide his own coffin for his deceased relatives, he remains free to do this; but the bodies must never be put into the ground with coffins, but have to be taken out again to use the coffin for other bodies.
  7. Relatives and friends, who want to establish a special monument of love, admiration and gratefulness for the deceased, should be allowed to follow their desires; but these can only be erected at the walls not on the graveyards, to avoid taking up space there. (Joseph Kropatschek: Handbuch aller unter der Regierung des Kaisers Joseph des II. fürdie k.k. Erbländer ergangenen Verordnungen und Gesetze in einer sistematischen Verbindung, Johann Georg Moeßle, Vienna 1786, vol. VI, pp. 565-70) 
Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the 1784 Josephinische Begräbnisordnung in Kropatschek's collection of laws of Joseph II.

This is the theoretical legal situation on which all flawed descriptions in the Mozart literature about the composer's supposed burial in a bag and a mass grave are based. But the emperor's puritanical concept met with stark opposition, especially in Vienna where the local population had not forgotten the mass graves of the plague epidemic of 1713/14. To become effective in the k.k. Hof- und Residenzstadt a law had to be approved by the Vienna City Council. And because the citizens of Vienna filed massive protests against sack burials in mass graves the Vienna Magistrate decided to remove the paragraphs 4-6 of the regulation from the Currende (i.e. the official publication of the law). Therefore reusable coffins never came into use in Vienna. The general opinion of the Austrian people is nicely described by Joseph Richter, who in his 1787 pamphlet Warum wird Kaiser Joseph von seinem Volke nicht geliebt? ("Why is Emperor Joseph not loved by his people?") wrote the following:
Die Edlen im Volke wünschen, Kaiser Joseph möge überhaupt mit minder schädlichen Fehlern und Schwachheiten der Menschen etwas mehr Nachsicht haben. Unter diese Schwachheiten gehört die Abneigung, sich in Säcke einnähen, und dann durcheinander in eine Kalkgrube hinschleudern zu lassen.
The noble of the nation wish that Emperor Joseph would show a little more leniency towards the less harmful flaws and weaknesses of the people. Among those weaknesses is the reluctance against being sewn into a bag and then being tossed into the muddle of a lime pit.
Owing to the protest of the people obligatory burials in linen bags had to be revoked in the k.k. Erblande on 20 January 1785. Joseph II issued the following court decree which amounts to a veiled rant against the stubbornness of his own subjects:
Everybody is allowed to be buried in coffins.
Because His Majesty has noticed that, owing to the salutary order to bury dead bodies without coffins in linen bags, sewed in completely naked and without clothes, many minds have been troubled and – out of prejudice – burials of bodies together with coffins are being preferred; and His Majesty is not inclined however to bend the will of his subjects in this less significant matter which is irrelevant for the general welfare: therefore His Majesty has declared that he does not think of forcing somebody to this kind of burial, who is not convinced of its advantage, but is willing, as far as the coffins are concerned, to allow everybody to freely do what in advance he considers agreeable for his body. Apart from that the content of the regulations of 23 August of last year remains valid. (Kropatschek, Handbuch, 1787, vol. VIII, p. 675f.)
The Emperor's withdrawal of obligatory burials without coffins in vol. 8 of Kropatschek's collection of laws.

The documents concerning the expenses for Mozart's coffin are lost. But there are of course archival sources from Mozart's time that show how the procurement of a coffin for a common citizen was handled and how much it cost.

When Mozart moved into the house Alsergrund No. 135 in June 1788 he made the acquaintance of Christoph Dopler, who lived there in a small apartment on the first floor, together with his wife Magdalena (née Neu) and his youngest two children Maria Anna and Karl.

 Christoph Dopler in the 1788 tax register of the house Alsergrund 135. His neighbor, the shoemaker Peter Dußel signed as witness in Dopler's probate documents (A-Wsa, Steueramt B34/27, fol. 218).

Dopler was born in Vienna around 1739. During the 1760s he ran an inn at the "Montserrater Gottesacker" (a cemetery on the Alsergrund, disbanded in 1783, which was located about here). By 1771 he is documented as being employed as Goldpolier (gold polisher at the porcelain factory) and in 1773 he is already given as "Mahler in der Porcellain Fabrique" (painter at the porcelain factory in the suburb Rossau). Dopler's speciality was painting so-called Türkenbecher (turkish cups).

Christoph Dopler's signature in the church records of Rossau parish

Dopler died on 5 May 1789 in the house Alsergrund 135. His probate records are of great interest, not only because they contain a document related to the cost of Dopler's coffin (directly proving the use of coffins in Mozart's Vienna), but they also provide a list of expenses of Dopler's widow which document Constanze Mozart's private funeral expenses two years later that are not recorded in Mozart's Sperrs=Relation. Dopler's body was consecrated at the Servite parish church of Rossau and buried third class for six Gulden and forty-five Kreuzer in the Währinger Allgemeiner Friedhof. The carpenter who made the coffin wrote the following receipt (A-Wsa, Mag. ZG, A2 1770/1789):

Quittung
P[er] Ein Gulden dreisig Kreitzer welcher ich / Endes under schribener vor eine thotten / druchen vor den herrn Cristof Doppel Seliger / Richtig und bar empfangen habe bescheine / hie mit wienn d[en] 12 Meÿ 789
                                                     Joseph Haiss bürgl: / Dischler meister
Ites[t] 1 f 30 x
Receipt
For one Gulden thirty Kreuzer which I the undersigned have received exactly and in cash for a coffin for the deceased Mr. Christoph Dopler, I certify herewith. Vienna 12 May 1789
                                                   Joseph Haiss civil master carpenter
That is 1 f 30 x
It is to be noted that Dopler was not a wealthy individual. His modest estate was estimated at about 34 Gulden. The cost of Dopler's coffin equalled the estimated value of his wall clock. The coffin cost six Kreuzer less than the cowl in which Dopler's corpse was dressed. The following list of Magdalena Dopler's private burial-related expenses provides a fascinating look at the burial customs in late 18th-century Vienna. In December 1791 Constanze Mozart – except for the orderly's wage – was certainly faced with having to pay for exactly those items. The list of her expenses that survives in Mozart's probate records ("bezahlte Konti") only concerns the composer's most recent debts.

The list of Magdalena Dopler's immediate expenses concerning her husband's burial (A-Wsa, Mag. ZG, A2 1770/1789).


The historical facts can be summarized as follows:
  1. Mozart was not buried in a linen bag without a coffin, because such burials were never obligatory in Vienna.
  2. Mozart was not buried in a mass grave, but in a customary "allgemeines Grab" (the usual common grave).
Of course countless books on Mozart – and even the most recent ones – are rife with stories about Mozart's body having been sewn into a bag and mercilessly hurled into a mass grave. Most of the nonsense is based on Braunbehrens, who in his 1986 book not only fantasised about "the music that was performed at Mozart's consecration inside the Kreuzkapelle of St. Stephen's" (there was no music and the consecration took place outside the church), but also referred to "rental coffins having been the normal equipment of all parishes" (a claim that he of course corroberated with the notorious Klappsarg in Vienna's Funeral Museum). Let me show a number of the most typical examples from the literature. To nobody's surprise Maynard Solomon picked up Braunbehrens's error and described the idea of "being buried without a coffin" for Mozart to have been "a metaphor of the brotherhood of souls". In volume two of his biography of Joseph II Derek Beales erroneously claims that between 1784 and 1785 people in Vienna were "buried without coffins in mass graves". More recent Mozart biographers do not fare any better. Martin Geck firmly believes in "Joseph II spartan burial regulations having been still valid in 1791" and so does Piero Melograni. In his 2009 book on Mozart's finances the "Mozart scholar" Günther G. Bauer writes about Mozart having been buried "in the dead of night in the usual mass grave". In 2009 Annette Kreutziger-Herr promises to answer the "important" question whether "Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave", only to claim again that Mozart's burial was not an exception and that "he was sewn into a linen bag". In her 2012 book about Constanze Mozart Gesa Finke describes Mozart's "laying out in a simple reusable coffin" and "burial, wrapped a linen sheet in a mass grave". And yet in her 2012 biography of Emanuel Schikaneder Eva Gesine Baur definitely takes the cake. After having spent "a year and a half of research", she not only has Mozart buried with a reusable coffin (with flaps on the bottom), but also choses to honor Schikaneder with the exact same funerary procedure in the year 1812.


11 comments:

  1. Bravo, Michael!

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  2. Fascinating. So much to admire in this piece.

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  3. Awesome. Thank you!

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  4. Just great work. I am so glad we could put this old canard into its own lime pit, naked, to decompose as quickly as possible. Mr. Lorenz's research is terrific indeed.

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  5. It is a pity that intelligence, painstaking research and disinterested truthfulness are so rarely found in combination. I continue to hope that musicologists who are native speakers of German will eventually become reconciled to the idea of reading carefully at least those parts of the author’s work which have appeared in their language.

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  6. Wonderful article. Would you mind if I included a link to this on my Mozart blog?

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  7. Your blog is so fascinating M. Lorenz. I love to read all your posts. Your work is generous and useful for everybody who loves Mozart.
    Now, I don't understand why Mozart's corpse had disappeared ten years after his death if he was burried in a coffin.

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  8. Interesting reading but flawed logic. For example, you conclude "Mozart was not buried in a linen bag without a coffin, because such burials were never obligatory in Vienna." If something was not obligatory, that means it did not happen? Unfortunately you did not show any evidence that Mozart was not burried without a coffin.

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  9. If you read the article again (and do some additional reading), you will perhaps realize that sack burials WERE NEVER INTRODUCED in Vienna at all.

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  10. Fascinating to mull over his burial in such detail. What can we ever truly know? Primary sources are always required; so now we are left to imagine and enjoy our personal macabre images from fact or imagination. What we do know is that he lived, composed great music and died. Enjoy! Ahahahahahhahaha!

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