Early on a foggy October morning, the Parkfriedhof (Park Cemetery) in Munich is uncharacteristically empty. The only visitor among the ivy-covered headstones is an old woman. Chrysanthemums in hand, she bows her head in honor of an ancestor or in memory of a loved one, and then gently lays the floral offering on a grave.
“Mourning,” as Thomas Lynch, a Michigan undertaker and poet once said, “is romance in reverse. If you love, you grieve, and there are no exceptions, only those who do it well and those who don’t.” True, but death and mourning reveal more than this. How the dead are buried, how a passing is grieved and how a memory is perpetuated all reflect upon a culture and its unique ideas of human nature and the afterlife.
Crushed skulls found in prehistoric burials suggest that our forebears feared the “living corpse.” Small holes in stone coffins of a later date indicate a belief in the ethereal soul.
The Iliad reveals how important funerals were to the ancient Greeks, as it was Zeus himself who forced Achilles to surrender Hector’s body. Millions of Americans simultaneously turned out their lights in tribute to Thomas Edison on the evening of his death. Munich’s most famous cemetries
Bogenhausen: final resting place of the rich and famous
61 cemetries are spread throughout Munich and they are full of visitors on All Saints’
SOMBER AND SILENT
In Munich, the traditional day for remembering the departed is November 1 –
Allerheiligen (All Saints’ Day). Church bells peal to remind the living of their obligation to the dead. Families dressed in their Sunday best follow the priest as he moves through the headstones blessing each grave. Candles burn into the night, their light flickering on carved angels caught in frozen flight. It is somber and silent, and a touching display of love and devotion. “All Saints’ Day has been observed in Munich and throughout Bavaria since the ninth century,” says Kriemhild Pöllath-Schwarz, head of the Städtische Friedhöfe München (Munich Cemetery Administration). “It is not a day focused on grief, but rather a day of dignified remembrance where the deceased are honored both ceremonially and spiritually.”
It is not a day focused on grief, but rather a day of dignified remembrance where the deceased are honored both ceremonially and spiritually Kriemhild Pöllath-SchwarzThe history of formal burials in Munich extends back to the city’s settlement. The first reference to a Friedhof or Gottesacker (God’s acre) is in a text from 1170. The site was near St. Peter’s Church in the city center. In those times, indeed up until almost 100 years ago, people normally died in their homes and among relatives. Children often attended the deathbed scene and passersby even followed the priest bearing the last sacrament to the dying man or woman. In Germany, the dead were buried in a sarcophagus or in a simple wooden coffin. The destitute were wrapped in cloth, or covered with hay and flowers, and buried without coffins. An elaborate mixture of Christian and pagan rituals was conducted to ensure the deceased were adequately laid to rest.
It was common practice throughout Europe to turn mirrors toward walls and one Bavarian custom was to place
Leichennudeln (corpse cakes) upon the dead body briefly, before baking the traditional dessert. By eating these cakes, the family were thought to absorb the virtues and abilities of their deceased relatives.
There are 61 cemeteries spread throughout Munich, 29 of which fall under the direct control of the Städtische Friedhöfe München. These include military cemeteries and burial sites belonging to various religious denominations. The manner in which the remains of the deceased are disposed of and how, in part, they are remembered is controlled by this authority. Today, a typical funeral in Munich costs €3,000 to €6,000 ($3,900 to $7,900). In 2011, some 4,400 people were buried and another 6,400 were cremated in the cemeteries controlled by the Städtische Friedhöfe München.
As this is Germany, regulations cover everything from the size of the grave and the coffin (which must not be longer than three meters) to the opening times of the cemetery and the size, shape and material of the headstones and sculptures allowed in each section of every cemetery. It is due to the commission that Munich’s cemeteries are pleasant, well-groomed landscapes spared of such final extravagant outbursts as Elvis Presley’s ostentatious last resting place in Tennessee, or Al Jolson’s lavish Los Angeles monument, which encompasses a 120-foot cascading waterfall.
Despite the regulations, each Munich cemetery still maintains its own distinct character. The largest is the Waldfriedhof; the newest, Friedhof Riem – Neuer Teil, was opened in 2001. The shady Nordfriedhof provided the backdrop to the opening scene in Thomas Mann’s classic
Death in Venice – setting the tone for the novella’s dark look at mortality. A story of the intersection points between the living and the dead.
Mourning follows clear rules. Cemetery regulations about headstone and grave size prevent the appearance of the more ostentatious gravesites.
A LINK TO THOSE WHO WENT BEFORE
Other cities are graced with one central cemetery where visitors can wander from grave to grave and read the names of the illustrious departed. Venice is home to the hauntingly beautiful San Michele, isle of the dead. Jim Morrison of The Doors and Oscar Wilde are buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, while George Eliot and Karl Marx are close neighbors in Highgate Cemetery in London. In Munich, there is no central cemetery, but the Bogenhausener Friedhof is unofficially known as the “celebrities’ cemetery.” Film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of drug abuse at an early age; Erich Kästner, author of
Emil and the Detectives (1929); and writers Annette Kolb and Oskar Maria Graf are among the famous who found their last resting place here.
Memorials have also been erected to victims of the National Socialist regime, such as Hermann Josef Wehrle and Alfred Delp, a Catholic priest who was executed because of his association with the 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Although it has the atmosphere of a village cemetery, Bogenhausener Friedhof is undoubtedly Munich’s most exclusive final resting place, as special approval is required from the mayor before burial is possible in one of the cemetery’s 209 graves.
By their nature, cemeteries are memorials linking us to the lives of those who have gone before. Munich’s oldest existing cemetery is the Alte Südfriedhof (Old South Cemetery), and it is the final resting place of a host of philosophers, artists, leading scientists, musicians, actors, politicians and prominent academics. The Old South Cemetery was created after the city’s inner graveyards reached capacity during an outbreak of the Black Death in the 16th century, and was then outside the city’s walls. It also contains memorials to forgotten incidents from the city’s history, such as the “Sendling Christmas Massacre.”
Few people today know the story of the bloody battle between troops of occupying Austrian forces and rebellious farmers early in the morning of Christmas Day, 1705. The resulting hail of bullets left an estimated 3,000 farmers dead or wounded. Those seeking refuge in nearby churches were rounded up and executed on the spot. Some 682 people were buried in mass graves in the cemetery after the massacre. A memorial, erected in 1830, stands near the graves of artist Carl Spitzweg and musician Franz Joseph Strauss, father of composer Richard Strauss.
PLACES OF ENCOUNTER AND COMMUNICATION
The development of modern cemeteries, similar to American-style memorial parks where graves are marked with flat metal markers instead of the customary gravestone, stems from the 19th century. Throughout Europe, the neighborhoods around churches were considered unhealthy owing to the overcrowding of cemetery grounds.
Coffins were often stacked in cavernous graves until they were within a few feet or even inches of the surface. Public apprehension grew as vaults under the pavements became jammed to capacity. Gravediggers often removed bones and decayed remains to pits adjacent to cemetery sites to make space for further burials, pocketing coffin plates, handles and nails, which they would later sell as scrap metal.
Growing concern for public health gave rise to new legislation across Europe from the 1850s onward. In July 1888, a law was passed banning burials within Munich’s city walls. Many existing graves were removed to outlying cemeteries and the remains reburied in mass graves.
Churchyard burials were gradually all but discontinued, with the state exerting a more direct administrative control over cemeteries. The result is that many of Munich’s cemeteries resemble municipal parks more than traditional headstone-laden areas. Encompassing a large proportion of the city’s open space, they offer some of the widest selections of trees and shrubs found outside the city’s botanical gardens. “Cemeteries are not simply about death,” says Pöllath- Schwarz. “They are a green oasis within the city; a quiet place where people go rest and experience the tranquility of the gardens. They are places of encounter and communication, and give us insights into the history of the city and its people.”