Fear and sorrow about the death of someone beloved cannot just be tuned away from our minds like changing a TV-channel. But in modern western societies the tackle with death is often ignored in public dispute. Experiencing a funeral in Germany for the first time, I got the impression that even the burying of someone beloved is more and more resolved in an efficient manner. In other cultures the death of someone close to us helps to understand what will also happen one day to us. Shouldn’t life attempt to understand what death means, just like every dream is supposed to give an idea of what eternity is?
A short feature about the latest trends at German cemeteries.
The smell of Diesel floats in the air, accompanied by the noise of a rumbling engine. “These days’ human bodies are hardly ever buried without an excavator. This way you can save on personnel and it get done quicker” – says Mr. Sowka, an excavator driver at the Park Cemetery in Essen. As soon as the funeral party has left, yellow sand pours from the excavators shovel into the open grave, emitting a hollow sound as the falling sand hits the wooden coffin.
The current trend is cremation
The silver bows, adorning the exposed wooden coffins exude an air of calm sympathy. In this funeral home you can select from a range of different models. “The current trend is cremation. Perhaps for philosophical reasons but the price is an important issue too. Possibly people feel it will cheaper to look after an urn than keep up maintenance on a grave” – assumes Karl Schumacher, who has worked as a funeral director since 1975. “Relationships in families are not as strong as they used to be. People worry in advance who will take care of their grave in the next 20-30 years”.
Lars Richter, a gardener at the Park Cemetery in Essen, has also noticed “a strong tendency towards an anonymous cremation”. Richter’s explanation is similar; by requesting cremation in advance people are surely concerned by future expenses. Sometimes they’re not certain their relatives will be able to provide proper care of their grave in the future. “It is disappointing that many graves are given back to the municipalities well before the time their allotment expires. [This is usually 10 to 15 years – K.M.] An interest in family graves and the desire to maintain them is shrinking especially among younger generations. A couple of years after the funeral, the deceased person is often forgotten”, regrets Lars Richter.
Standards of sorrow
A contrary trend is seen in Islamic burials. Perhaps because “the possibilities for Muslims to bury their relatives in Germany, have improved. Now separate areas within Christian cemeteries are reserved for Islamic burials” – says Cemil Arpaci from the Islamic Burial Institute, Gurbet. There are no coffins exposed in this funeral house, as traditionally a Moslem should be buried in a shroud. “This makes the resurrection easier” – explains Mr. Arpaci.
While some twenty years ago many Muslim leaders used to take their deceased back to their homelands, nowadays more and more people decide to bury their relatives in Germany. “You don’t then have to fly to Turkey every time you want to look after the grave” – remarks the Islamic funeral director. “There are some muslin families who visit their relatives once a week or at least every month”. Very often Muslims bury their deceased themselves, “both the funeral prayer and the ritual washing are activities of great importance for the family”, adds Hayrullah Bozdag, a worker at the Gurbet Institute.
Is the western culture’s conception of life and death hence dominated by efficiency? “I would never equate the type of equipment used in current funeral ceremonies as a measure of the sadness or emotion of a family” says Karl Schumacher. “It is completely misleading to argue ‘that because of this there was no love involved”. Nevertheless an anonymous cremation or anonymous earth burial has become most popular. “Surely the person worries about his or her grave becoming neglected and what the neighbours would think”, remarks Karl Schumacher.
In in the near future, the locals of Nord-Rhein-Westfalia will be given the option to bury their relatives at home, in an attempt to loosen cemetery compulsion. “On the internet you can purchase virtual burials in virtual cemeteries, like the ‘hall of memory available’, where anyone can acquire a virtual gravestone (prices between 150 and 2000 EUR). In the future a material place of remembrance might become less and less important. Relatives of the deceased tell us they mourn their deceased in their hearts. Even without a grave, they treasure their loved ones through memories” – explains Schumacher.
?One woman confessed that it would be better for her to arrange a nice place for her husband’s ashes the in her cellar , than having to visiting him at some cold and rainy cemetery. This way she had the privacy to mourn over him more putatively”.
Park Cemetery is a ‘real’ cemetery, with an efficient way of offering burial allotments. According to the cemetery’s administration, grieving can be retained in spite of the missing graves and the general atmosphere of anonymity. “It is not difficult for families to mourn their relatives because we have marked out clear grave fields, in which stands one common commemorative stone for the totality of the descended in a place. Here all mourners can gather in order to commemorate the dead. These little fields at least allow people to retain some contact with the deceased” said Lars Richter.
Even though , graves at the Park Cemetery hardly differ from one another, the cemetery shows no traces of personal sorrow. “Here, at the Park Cemetery we have so-called ‘duration care sites’ that are fenced off in advance for many years,”… explained the gardener. “The older generations take care of the graves much better than the younger ones do.”
In order to fight against the lack of discussion about mourning and thoughts about death, Karl Schumacher has resolved himself to do something quite unique in Germany. ?We considered that young people, even among friends, have very few opportunities to express their feelings about death. Therefore we want to establish a mourning ch
at-site on the internet. We plan to hire a part-time psychotherapist and get in touch with auxiliary organisations that can offer support. This we hope will allow young people all over Germany to share their feelings with others who are experiencing similar emotions and abolished the silence that hangs on such matters.”