The Undertaker

"You don’t feel it anyway."

Erich Traxler works at the Funeral Museum of Vienna’s famous Central Cemetery. Before he was a coffin bearer and later an arranger at the funeral parlor. Even though his métier is death, he has remained a person with a sense of humor. A conversation about selfie coffins, decomposition, and the question of who we are when we are dead. 

“Ashes to Ashes”

Antje Mayer-Salvi: Mister Traxler, even children from the day care center come to your museum. What kinds of questions do these youngest visitors ask about death?

Erich Traxler: In the beginning it was difficult to tell children something about burials. They asked me things like: “What’s it like when I’m dead?” or “Is it soft lying in the coffin?” It would be terrible to say: “Don’t kick up a fuss – if it’s soft or hard, you couldn’t care less. You don’t feel it anyway.

What do you say instead?

I tell them: “There’s a bedding that grandma rests upon softly, and she is sleeping peacefully.” Then the kids are happy. It doesn’t help when I say: “Do you see the cloud? That’s where grandma sits. And then she looks up and sees a bird fly by.” Most children can’t do much with that.

The merchandising department of your museum is quite inventive and clearly has not lost their sense of humor given the sad topic. Sales items include a gym T-shirt sporting the label “Ich turne bis zur Urne” [Train till you drop], a limited Lego edition of a “selfie coffin”, a Lego crematorium oven, and face masks with “Corona denial secures jobs. Funeral Service Vienna” written on them.

These are all ideas of our staff, our bosses are always up for a joke, but there are limits. Our ashtray proposal with the label “Ashes to Ashes. Funeral Service Vienna” was not approved. 

Actually, it’s not you who is impious, but death! Is death a waste?

We curse it because it takes our dearest ones from us – but it is not a waste, rather a regulator. All of us running around at 400 years of age would be a horror scenario. With the pandemic on the go, I’ll allow myself a bit of philosophy: Death also teaches us a lesson. He is the only one who wants us all. But nobody wants him.

As you mentioned corona, were there more funerals last year?

Of course, there was no way around it.

“Can’t I cuddle anymore?”

As an arranger, you had to conduct the so-called “death check”. What is that?

That’s pretty simple. You open the coffin and ask “Hey, are you Mister Mayer? Okay, thanks.” Just kidding. In the coffin there is usually an accompanying death certificate, usually hand and feet passports too, these are little slips of paper around the wrist or ankle. When the name matches the seal number of the coffin, you know the right person is inside.

Did it ever happen that the name and seal number did not match?

Yes, once my commission read “Hans” but the hand passport in the coffin read “Peter”. I immediately closed the morgue and got in contact with the operation service. In the end, it was the right corpse, his name was “Hans-Peter”.

Can it actually happen that the wrong person gets buried?

A mistake can happen with the collection of the body at the hospital or the delivered corpse carries the wrong label. During my coffin inspection I also have to decide if the corpse can be looked at. The bereaved express this wish from time to time. But if there are external transformations, such as cadaveric lividity, strong odor, I have to decline when the family asks to have a last look at the deceased. Sometimes forensics already stipulates that a corpse can no longer be viewed, then the coffin is screwed tight and grouted.

“The foot is in row 31, the rest in row 35.”

Is laying out a corpse a Catholic custom?

On the contrary, I can’t think of a culture that doesn’t do it. We probably need it so we can say farewell – putting grave goods in the coffin is also a human need, back then for the Egyptians and still today in Vienna. For the bereaved of those who donated their body to anatomy, there is no farewell and no grave, only an anatomy collection point, that’s hard for many to cope with.

What happens to the body parts after dissection at the anatomy lab?

After doctorate candidates have examined ten right feet, they are brought to the Central Cemetery, where they are collected in a box and incinerated. A week later the left feet arrive, sometimes just the head or torso.

Is Hans still Hans, when his heart lies in one grave and his foot in another?

Well, he will always be Hans. It doesn’t matter what’s missing. The foot is in row 31, the rest in row 35. To put it a bit simple: He’s all mixed up.

Your profession is challenging for sure! How did you come to it?

You have to be cut out for it. I’m a trained plumber. Bad odors were daily business. In retrospect, the smell of corpses is often easier to bear. After my apprenticeship I was a salesman for pantyhose, I sold beer and chips at the soccer field, drove “Fiaker” horse carriages, and worked as a chestnut roaster. Then I started at the Funeral Service Vienna as a coffin bearer, at least better than the job of the undertaker. That’s backbreaking work.

“It ain’t funny!”

How come?

Most graves are still dug by hand because, for example, the excavator doesn’t fit down the grave rows, it’s too slow, and can’t dig down the mandatory 2.7 meters. If someone wants a relocation, you have to dig out the boxes again and stand in the “slop” – the liquid that develops when a human decomposes. It ain’t funny!

What pushes you to the limit?

There have been days, when I poked my head in the first coffin at half past seven, and I could have evacuated yesterday’s supper. Especially when it is something with a kid, I don’t go unscathed. 90% of the children’s coffins are sealed by forensics, but there are a few where a coffin inspection is required by law. Once I had a transport coffin from Germany – I was queasy, I didn’t know what to expect. My great colleagues said: “C’mon, let’s do it together, no prob!” We went down into the cool store and pried open the lid together.

What is the person when they lie there dead: just material or still a human?

Now you’re getting philosophical. My personal opinion, there’s something afterwards. I believe that life on Earth is just a stopover and that everyone here has a task to fulfill. But as a professional, you have to turn off your personal opinion. I don’t know the dead people. I just witness the suffering of those left behind. So it is a bit easier for me…

…you keep a healthy distance from things…

…yeah, basically there’s a piece of meat lying there, which I didn’t know, hence, it’s not my job, honestly, to judge whether he’s better or worse off, whether she left us too early or too late.

“Life is just a stopover.”

In the morgue you are probably often alone with the dead. Doesn’t that scare you?

I got used to it, but it is spooky, no question. When I’m in the cemetery at six in the morning in the dark, only see the grave candles, and it is so quiet that you can hear a June bug crawling over a leaf, then I’ve automatically got all horror films playing at once in my head. 

Have you also experienced funny things?

An elderly lady wanted to give her late husband a kiss. I held open the coffin lid and thought: “Holy cow, no way, it just keeps getting heavier.” I said: “Madam, you can’t lie down in there!” She answered: “Aww, can’t I cuddle anymore?” And I answered: “No, please come out! We’ll get in a hell of a mess!”

That’s touching! You can empathize well with family members?

Naturally, but I have a problem with those who are immune to advice. Once I tried to dissuade a family member from opening the coffin, but he responded: “I’m from the Red Cross, and I’ve seen everything there is to see. Open it up.” The smell of decay was so terrible that the mourners hastily ran out of the room. I advised a mother once: “You will not be doing yourself a favor when you look at your child.” Because with the younger ones the decay process progresses quickly. But she insisted, so I opened the lid and the lady fell over. “That is not my child. That is not my child!” she screamed. Then we brought her some water, she sat down, and we calmed her down with a lot of empathy. Don’t help much if I go and say: “I told you so!”

“Somebody’s gotta do it.”

How do friends and family react to your job?

I’m not allowed to touch my aunt, she claims: “When you touch me, the cold runs down my spine.” Like half joking, half serious. But the most of them appreciate what I do and say: “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Are there “happy” funerals?

One time a widow said to me: “Don’t be surprised. My husband always wished that we would sing, laugh, and dance at his funeral.” Three musicians came along, one with a banjo, one on the sax, and another punched the keys of his organ like there was no tomorrow. Four blocks away you could still hear the music, and the people walking by swayed to the music.

That sounds like a good day at work. How would you like to be buried?

I want my ashes to be spread at sea.

Thanks for the talk!

The illustrious Vienna Central Cemetery opened in 1874 and counts among the largest cemeteries in Europe with its 330,000 graves. More than 250 original items are on exhibit in the accompanying Funeral Museum, including “sustainable” things like the reusable coffin, which Emperor Joseph II introduced in 1784.