Wednesday, April 30, 2014

no longer the dead centre of town: pneumatic burials

Whenever we would drive past a cemetery on family roadtrips, my dad would often point out the window and say "there is the dead centre of town".

What happens though when cities get so big that they have to start burying their dead outside them, for reasons of space and hygiene? This was a problem that faced Vienna in the late 19th Century, and so a new cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetery, was built on the city's outskirts. There was a problem though with this new arrangement - being almost 9km out of town, how to transport those who had died to this new burial site?

Initially transport relied on horse-drawn cart. In poor weather, especially snow, this led to all kinds of chaos however, with coffins sometimes left in taverns along the way. Another solution had to be found. And so the engineer  Franz von Felbinger and architect Josef Hudetz came up with the ingenious plan of pneumatic corpse transportation.

Published as Begräbnishalle mit pneumatischer Förderung für den Centralfriedhof der Stadt Wien, the proposal was as follows, as reported in Scientific American on October 3rd 1874 (and summarised in the Otago Witness February 13th 1875):
It is proposed to erect a grand monumental hall or temple, which is to be divided into three portions, a middle hall and two smaller ones, the former to be devoted to the use of Roman Catholics, and the latter respectively to Protestants and Israelites. These apartments will be subdivided into chapels suitably furnished and decorated.
On a funeral taking place, the body in its coffin will be deposited in a sarcophagus in the centre of one of the chapels, and the ceremony proceeded with. At the conclusion, the chief mourner touches a spring, when the sarcophagus sinks noiselessly through the floor. This corresponds to the public burial, as far as the mourners are concerned, they have nothing further to do with the body. On its arrival, however, in the cellar, men stationed for the purpose attach a check to the bier, showing to which cemetery it is to be forwarded, and place the body, with three others, in an iron car which fits in a subterranean tube, running on trucks placed therein, after the plan described by us as followed in the construction of the experimental section of the pneumatic railway under Broadway in this City. This tunnel in Vienna will be 15,000 feet long, and the carriages will be propelled through its entire length, by means of a blast of compressed air, in about ten minutes.
The incredible pneumatic burial plan was never realised, reportedly due to technical problems and "issues of peity". Corpses were eventually transported to the cemetery by tramline in the early 20th century, then motorised hearse.

This is an intriguing chapter in the story of people moving by pneumatic tube, which raises many interesting questions: What were the issues of peity, that worked against the proposal? How much did the Viennese public know of these plans, and what did they think of them? It is fascinating that the religions were separated above ground, yet bodies were propelled through the tunnel together - or were they to be differentiated here too, with separate religious tracks or trolleys  in the system? The notion of the noiseless sinking into the subterranean tube correlating with a public burial is also intriguing.

From what I can find, there seems little written about the plans in English (although see references below). I do know that the researcher Florian Bettel, from the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg has written on the topic in German, for those who are interested, and for those interested in pneumatic systems in Vienna more generally, you may find the publication below, in English and German, a good read (if you can find a copy to buy online).

Information for this post obtained from Vienna: A Cultural History by Nicholas Parsons and Vienna: A Doctor's Guide by Wolfgang Regal and Michael Nanut. For more information about the pneumatic postal system in Vienna see The Pneumatic Post in Vienna by Colin Tobitt and Andy Taylor, published in English in 2005. Image of patent for "Method of preserving dead bodies" from Atlas Obscura.

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