Why Mozart Wasn't Buried in a Pauper's Grave

Mozart, his sister, and their father.
Mozart, his equally gifted sister, and their father. (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone knows child prodigy and all time musical great Mozart burned brightly, died young and was still poor enough to be buried in a pauper's grave, right? This ending shows up in many places. Unfortunately, there's a problem—in that this isn't true. Mozart is buried somewhere in Vienna's St. Marx cemetery, and the exact location is unknown; the current monument and 'grave' are the results of an educated guess.

The circumstances of the composer's burial, and the lack of any definite grave, has led to great confusion, including the common belief that Mozart was dumped into a mass grave for paupers. This view stems from a misinterpretation of funerary practices in eighteenth-century Vienna, which doesn't sound terribly interesting but it does explain the myth.

Mozart's Burial

Mozart died on December 5th, 1791. Records show that he was sealed in a wooden coffin and buried in a plot along with 4–5 other people; a wooden marker was used to identify the grave. Although this is the kind of burial modern readers may associate with poverty, it was actually the standard practice for middle-income families of the time. The burial of groups of people in one grave was organized and dignified, differing greatly from the images of large open pits now synonymous with the term 'mass grave.'

Mozart may not have died rich, but friends and admirers came to his widow's aid, helping her pay debts and funeral costs.

Large graveside gatherings and grand funerals were discouraged in Vienna during this period, hence Mozart's simple burial, but a church service was certainly held in his honor. He was buried as a man of his social standing would have been at the time.

The Grave Is Moved

At this point, Mozart had a grave; however, at some stage during the next 5–15 years, 'his' plot was dug up to make room for more burials.

The bones were re-interred, possibly having been crushed to reduce their size; consequently, the position of Mozart's grave was lost. Again, modern readers may associate this activity with the treatment of pauper's graves, but it was common practice. Some historians have suggested that the story of Mozart's 'paupers' burial was first encouraged, if not partly started, by the composer's widow, Constanze, who used the tale to provoke public interest in her husband's work, and her own performances of it. Grave space was at a premium, a problem local councils still have to worry about, and people were given one grave for a few years, then moved to an all-purpose smaller area. This was not done because anyone in them was poor.

Mozart's Skull?

There is, however, one final twist. In the early twentieth century, the Salzburg Mozarteum was presented with a rather morbid gift: Mozart's skull. It was alleged that a gravedigger had rescued the skull during the 're-organization' of the composer's grave. Although scientific testing has been unable to either confirm or deny that the bone is Mozart's, there is enough evidence on the skull to determine a cause of death (chronic haematoma), which would be consistent with Mozart's symptoms before death.

Several medical theories about the exact cause of Mozart's demise—another great mystery surrounding him—have been developed using the skull as evidence. The mystery of the skull is real, the mystery of the pauper's grave is solved.