Over our dead bodies: Austrian Saints dedicate their corner of Vienna’s Central Cemetery

On September 19, 2009, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Austria celebrated the dedication of what I estimate to be an hectare-sized plot set apart for the Mormon deceased, located in Vienna’s massive Central Cemetery (aka Zentralfriedhof), one of Europe’s largest in terms of area and bodies buried. In a way, this small yet centrally-located plot represents a coming of age for the Church in Austria, an expression of the Church’s status as one of 15 state-sanctioned religions.

In order to better understand the significance of what the Austrian Saints celebrated last month, it’s helpful to understand a couple of issues relating to the Church’s status in Austria. First, church and state have been traditionally close throughout Austrian history; until the end of Austria-Hungary in 1918, for example, the emperor was personally involved in appointing each Roman Catholic bishop, and religious affairs were strictly governed by the Kultusministerium, or the ministry of religious affairs. To this day, the Kultusministerium lives on in spirit and function as the Kultusamt, or religious affairs office, of the Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture, and is responsible for the execution of regulations concerning public worship, which these days amounts to determining if religious groups qualify for either of two levels of official recognition and conducting public awareness campaigns on the dangers of cults.

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