Rest in Pieces

 

by Rita Klement

Rest in Pieces [0] – das posthume Schicksal Ludwig van Beethovens

When Ludwig van Beethoven was buried in Vienna on March 29, 1827, three days after his death, the crowd was enormous. The funeral had been scheduled for the afternoon because many mourners from outside were expected, but no one had expected so many people. Estimates speak of up to 20,000 people who had come to say goodbye to the eccentric genius. The coffin of the master had been placed in the courtyard of the Schwarzspanierhaus, Beethoven’s last of a total of 30 residences in Vienna. At the entrance, several policemen kept order while 4 trombonists and 16 singers performed an arrangement of Equale a quattro Tromboni written for the occasion. This was followed by the Funeral March from the Piano Sonata in A flat major, op. 26, in a version for wind instruments. At 3:30 p.m., the funeral procession began to move. Eight singers carried the coffin, eight bandmasters held white ribbons that were placed over the coffin, and the corpse was surrounded by 40 artistic personalities – one of them Franz Schubert, who would die only a year and a half later and whose body would one day share Beethoven’s fate. In front of the coffin walked several priests, behind them followed students of the conservatory and numerous mourners. The imposing funeral procession could only make its way with difficulty. For the few hundred meters to the Alserkirche, which one would normally cover in less than 10 minutes, the funeral procession needed an hour and a half. After the solemn consecration in the church, the coffin was taken to the Währing cemetery in a hearse, accompanied by an escort of no less than 200 carriages. At the cemetery, the actor Heinrich Anschütz, a friend of Beethoven, delivered the funeral oration written by none other than Franz Grillparzer, then the coffin, covered with three laurel wreaths, was lowered into the grave. [1]
But what none of those present could have foreseen on the day of this sensational funeral service – it was not to be Beethoven’s last, indeed not even the penultimate funeral! For what was meant to be a final resting place lasted only 36 years. In the fall of 1863, at the instigation of the “Direktion der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde des österreichischen Kaiserstaates,” the first reburial of the musical genius’s mortal remains took place. The master’s bones were removed from the original wooden coffin and reburied in a metal coffin. [2] According to the description of this reburial published in the same year, the initiators wanted to protect Beethoven and Franz Schubert, who was also exhumed on this day, from “further decomposition” and to restore their resting place in a “dignified manner”. [3] The exhumation was to take place on October 13, 1863, and the preparatory work had already begun the day before. During the night, guards were posted to keep onlookers away from the two gravesites.

Brüder Kohn KG (B. K. W. I.) (Hersteller), 11., Zentralfriedhof – Ehrengrab von Beethoven, Ansichtskarte, 1900–1905, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 234473, CC0 (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/objekt/1040800/)

However, the opening of Beethoven’s grave turned out to be quite difficult. Shortly after his funeral in March 1827, there were rumors that morbid fans wanted to take parts of the corpse, especially the head. The grave had therefore been specially protected and the wooden coffin had not merely been covered with earth, but a veritable vault of bricks had been erected over the precious corpse. Thus, it took a full eight hours to reach Beethoven’s coffin. [4]

However, there was not too much left of Beethoven’s coffin and only some wooden parts were found. Then, the precious bones were recovered. Particular importance was attached to the discovery of the skull, since there had been repeated rumors that it had not been in the coffin at all. But the rumors could be disproved. Not only were the bones found, but also the skull of the great composer, which was cut into nine pieces during the autopsy. The precious corpse was now examined, the bones measured. [5] Afterwards, the bones were to be lined up in the new coffin in “as natural a position as possible”. For this purpose, Beethoven’s vertebrae were threaded on a string. Despite this effort to achieve a “natural position,” it was decided not to rebury the heads of the two dead composers for the time being, but to keep them in the Society of Friends of Music, all the more so since Beethoven’s skull was no longer complete anyway. The coffins were sealed and protected with the Society’s seal and then moved to the chapel. The remains of clothing found in the graves and the remains of the two wooden coffins were also given to the Society of the Friends of Music. [6]

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

Johann Stephan Decker (Künstler), Ludwig van Beethoven, 1824, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. W 513, CC0 (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/objekt/248298/)

Only a few days later, the two skulls were put back into the coffins after they had been examined medically, photographed and cast in plaster. In the meantime, the graves had been walled up so that the skeletons, now reunited with their heads, could be buried in the new metal coffins as well as the remains of the old coffins and Beethoven’s and Schubert’s clothing recovered during the exhumation. [7]

But this was not to be the end of the odyssey for Ludwig van Beethoven’s precious corpse. For only another 25 years later, his “eternal rest” was once again interrupted. It was decided to make the new central cemetery, which was not very well received by the population, more attractive by transferring prominent personalities here.

In 1888, Ludwig van Beethoven was exhumed for a second time and the valuable remains were examined once again. Since the time available for the examination was extremely limited, one had to limit oneself to an examination of the skull. [8] However, it was noticed that some other parts of the skull were missing, since it was already known that the rock bones (inner ear) had already been removed during the autopsy and had not been buried with them. [9]

The bone fragments of Beethoven’s skull, which had apparently been removed during the first exhumation, did not reappear until about 100 years later, when the two physicians Hans Bankl and Hans Jesserer, after long research, succeeded in 1985 in finding the missing bone pieces in a metal box with the inscription Beethoven. They had been in the estate of the physician Romeo Seligmann, who had been present at the first exhumation, and had now been handed over to the two scientists by one of his descendants. [10] Later, these pieces of bone arrived in the USA and were examined there together with some locks of hair by the “Center for Beethoven Studies”. [11] Thus, the mystery of the cause of Beethoven’s death could now be solved with the greatest probability.

Kilophot (K. L.) (Hersteller), 18., Währinger Ortsfriedhof – Beethoven-Grab, Ansichtskarte , 1914 (Herstellung), Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 58891/1338, CC0 (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/objekt/130368/)

The autopsy immediately after his death had already shown a cirrhosis of the liver, but it was not the alcohol [12], which had undoubtedly been consumed in problematic quantities, that was ultimately to blame for his death, but rather the last medical treatments. After pneumonia, Beethoven had also suffered from dropsy and had therefore been punctured several times; the wounds were treated with lead-containing ointments to prevent infection. The liver, which was already damaged, could probably no longer cope with these amounts of lead [13] – but Beethoven’s numerous illnesses are already another story….
References and literature used

Quellen:

0 … Lovejoy 2013

1 … Caeyers, S. 19ff.

2 … Bankl/Jesserer, S. 89

3 … Actenmässige Darstellung, S. 3.

4 … Actenmässige Darstellung, S. 4.

5 … Actenmässige Darstellung, S. 4ff.

6 … Actenmässige Darstellung, S. 8.

7 … Actenmässige Darstellung, S. 10ff.

8 … Bankl/Jesserer, S. 96ff.

9 … Bankl/Jesserer, S. 110.

10 … Bankl/Jesserer, S. 103f.

11 … Reiter 2007.

12 … Erfurth, S. 386f.

13 … Reiterer 207.

 

 

Literaturverzeichnis

Jan Caeyers, Beethoven. Der einsame Revolutionär, München 2020.

Andreas Erfurth, Ludwig van Beethoven—a psychiatric perspective. In: Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift Band 171, S. 381–390, Wien 2021.

Bess Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces. Die unglaublichen Schicksale berühmter Leichen, New York, 2013.

Christian Reiter, Beethovens Todesursachen und seine Locken, Mitteilungsblatt Wr. Beethoven-Gesellschaft 38.Jg, Wien 2007.

o.V., Actenmässige Darstellung der Ausgrabung und Wiederbeisetzung der irdischen Reste von Beethoven und Schubert, Wien 1863.

 

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