A funeral at Melk Abbey, Austria
“This sure is a quiet town.” I’m almost whispering, unwilling to have my voice ring out in the silent streets. “Where is everybody?” It’s about seven in the evening, and as we climb the zigzag pathways to the great church on the hill, there is scarcely another soul around.
We’re going to a funeral. My friend saw the notice pinned unobtrusively to a post in the hotel bar: There will be a service at the abbey tonight for one of the monks, who has died suddenly, before his time. A popular man, a local favourite, highly regarded, sadly missed, the notice says. The community is invited to pay its respects.
We are not of the community, but we are curious, so through the dark streets and up the stone staircases we go. I haven’t yet connected the desertion of the town with the funeral at the abbey. As we approach the elegant arched entrance to the monastery precinct, we see fire engines crowding the forecourt. My friend interprets the scene better, and more quickly, than I do. I’m thinking, “A fire at the abbey? During a monk’s funeral? How very Umberto Eco.” But my friend has lived long enough in Austria to understand that not a Gothic but a civic explanation is required.
The people of Melk and all the parishes of the surrounding Wachau district have turned out in force, in uniform, through whatever structure of collective identity they can call upon, to mark the passing of their brother. Every club, team, order, guild, society, brotherhood, sisterhood, Bund, Verein and Gesellschaft is here. Not just represented here, but actually here, in body, en masse. Every fireman, policeman and Boy Scout wears his uniform; every teacher, nurse and union official is badged. The farmers are here, and so are the municipal councillors from nearby villages. Their gleaming trucks, cars and engines, freshly washed and highly polished, identify the various communities, trades and professions to which these people are clearly proud to belong.
This is the guard of honour outside the church. We walk through it. At the church door, uniformed officials keep watch. I would have turned away, but my friend is unabashed. His six years’ residence in Vienna probably helps. “We’re here for Brother A---’s funeral,” he says confidently, I forget whether in English or in German. The young man in his uniform scrutinises us for a second or two, then opens the door and gestures for us to proceed.
Inside there is colour, gold, incense, music, faces, voices, more gold. The Stiftskirche is a baroque jewellery box, glorious in candlelight, vibrant with song and incantation. There is only standing room. The service is already under way and, of course, being neither Austrian nor Catholic, I understand very little of what is being said or done, but experience the funeral as a dance of feeling between priests and townspeople. A modestly draped coffin is the focus for the energies of community expressed in music and liturgy, which, soaring, match the visual splendour of the scene.
Tomorrow we will come back, and we will see the abbey as the guidebooks and the travel writers promise it. We will see the palatial exterior, painted in sunny Schönbrunn yellow. We will see the beautiful rococo courtyard, with its palms and fountains, and think of it as a prettier Versailles. We will see the famous library with its ancient books, and peer into the pastel-coloured whorl of the shell-like spiral staircase. We will stand on the terrace and gaze at the lovely view of the Danube Valley. We will do all that a visitor to Melk is supposed to do, and it will be wonderful, but it will not be like this.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, called Melk Abbey the “high noon” of Europe, the highest point of the “high baroque style”. The prose he used to describe it is sunshiny and light-saturated. He even makes noon at Melk his hour of epiphany as well as his key metaphor: “Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve.” But I’ve fallen for Melk Abbey at night – not at midnight, the Gothic hour when romance writers find dark mysteries in conventual spaces, but at a civil hour, between seven and eight in the evening, when the river cruisers have gone back to their ships and the people of the town may come out, after work and an early dinner, to interact with the real working life of the monastic order that has existed here for more than a thousand years.
The funeral ends and we file out with the hundreds of mourners to watch the coffin carried to a vehicle that will take it to a burial ground beyond the monastery walls. My friend is troubled by the seeming severity of this custom. “But he would have served here his whole life,” he says. “Why can’t he be buried here too? It’s as if, at his death, he’s being expelled from the religious community.”
We puzzle over this and can’t really do anything with it. It feels harsh. The coffin looks very solitary as it waits to be conveyed through the gates into the darkness beyond. After the uplifted atmosphere in the church, the mood in the forecourt has become sombre, almost austere. All stand in silence, many with heads bowed. We – my friend and I – watch our unknown brother set out for the undiscovered country.
After the coffin has left, the firemen return to their trucks, the policemen to their cars. The Boy Scouts form lines and leave under the supervision of their troop leaders. We depart through the same archway by which we entered. At first we’re part of a throng, but the crowds quickly melt away. No one walks the same path as we do, the path that leads down stone stairs and through narrow alleys to the main street, where the hotels and restaurants are.
Melk will glow tomorrow in autumnal sunshine and we will see all that should be seen by a visitor to this beautiful mediaeval town. But tonight we’ve seen something different. We have interloped. We have slipped through the net that keeps tourists within the spaces designed for them. We’ve found our way to the secret life of a town. Just for an hour, we have gone to the other side.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Service entry". Subscribe here.