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December 1999

Dearly Departed

Early on a foggy 0ctober morning, the Parkfriedhof (Park Cemetery) in Obermenzing is uncharacteristically empty. The only visitor to be seen among the avenues of trees and ivy-covered headstones is an old woman. Chrysanthemums in hand, the symbol of death, she bows her head in honor of an ancestor or in memory of a loved one and then gently lays her floral offering on a nearby grave. “Mourning,” Thomas Lynch, a Michigan funeral director 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 just 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 the remains of prehistoric Germanic 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 for cremation. Millions of Americans simultaneously turned out their lights in tribute to Thomas Edison on the evening of his death. In Munich, the traditional day for remembering the departed is November 1 — Allerheiligen (All Saints’ Day). Church bells sound throughout the city to remind the living of their obligation to the dead and mass is held in many of the cemeteries. Families dressed in their Sunday best follow the priest as he moves through the headstones blessing each grave. Candles laid at gravesites burn into the night, their flickering light simulating the flight of carved angels. It is somber, silent and an extraordinarily touching display of mass love and devotion. All Saints’ Day is our busiest day of the year,” says Herbert Huber, an official at the Munich City Cemetery Administration. “The cemeteries are specially decorated with flowers and trimmings, and remain open all day. Thousands of people pass through carrying flowers, lighted candles and lanterns, paying their respects. It is a day of prayer and remembrance.” The history of formal burials in Munich extends at least as far back as the city’s settlement in 1158. The first reference to a Friedhof, or Gottesacker (God’s acre), was near St. Peter’s Church, near the present-day Viktualienmarkt, dating from about 1170. Five times throughout its history, this cemetery was reconsecrated because of blood shed on its grounds during incessant internecine wars and civil strife. 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. The dead were buried in a sarcophagus or, if they were of modest means, 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 were conducted to ensure the deceased was adequately laid to rest. It was common practice throughout Europe to turn mirrors toward walls and, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one Bavarian custom was to place Leichennudeln (corpse cakes) upon the dead body briefly, before baking the traditional dessert. By consuming these cakes, the kinsmen were thought to absorb the virtues and abilities of their deceased relatives. Today, Munich boasts 57 cemeteries and, last year alone, 9,606 people were buried in them, while another 9,389 were cremated. The manner in which their remains were disposed of and how, in part, they are remembered is controlled by the Friedhofsverwaltung. Twenty-seven state cemeteries fall under the direct control of this cemetery regulatory commission, while many of its laws must be observed by the others. Those include soldier cemeteries and burial sites belonging to various religious denominations. Friedhofsverwaltung regulations cover everything from the size of the grave and the coffin (whose length may not exceed three meters) to the opening times of the Friedhof and the size, shape and material of the headstones and sculptures allowed in each section of every cemetery. It is due to the efforts of 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 Johnson’s lavish $84,000 Los Angeles monument, which encompasses a 120-foot waterfall. Yet, despite the regulations, each Munich cemetery still maintains its own distinct character. The largest is the Waldfriedhof near Grosshadern; the newest, the Neue Südfriedhof in Perlach, was created in 1970. Located on Garchinger Strasse is the city’s Jewish cemetery. The shadowy Nordfriedhof on Ungererstrasse provided the backdrop to the first scene in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — setting the tone for the novella’s dark look at mortality. 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 such 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, Romain Rolland and Oskar Maria Graf are among the famous who found their last resting place here. Others include conductors Rudolf Kempe and Hans Knappertsbusch and noted German actors Robert Graf, Gustl Waldau and Liesl Karlstadt, partner of famed Munich native and satirist Karl Valentin. Here, memorials have been erected to victims of the Nazi regime, such as Hermann Joseph Wehrle and Alfred Delp, a priest who was executed because of his association with the plotters of the 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Delp, the Kirchenrektor of St. George’s Church between 1941 and 1944, was arrested after giving a church service on July 28 and executed seven months later. 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 and history of those who have gone before us. The Alte Südliche Friedhof, Munich’s oldest existing cemetery, offers insight into the development of the city. Buried in this cemetery, created after the city’s inner cemeteries reached capacity during an outbreak of the Black Death in the 17th century, are a host of philosophers, artists, leading scientists, musicians, actors, politicians and prominent academics who played key roles in the city’s history. The cemetery also elucidates forgotten historical incidents, such as the “Sendlinger Christmas Massacre.” Few people today know the story of the bloody battle between troops loyal to the occupying Austrian forces and rebellious farmers from Oberbayern 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 and the Südliche Friedhof were rounded up and executed on the spot. Some 682 people were buried in mass graves in the cemetery after the massacre. A memorial to these victims, erected in 1830, stands near the graves of artist Karl Spitzweg and musician Franz Josef Strauss, father of composer Richard Strauss. The development of the modern Munich cemetery, similar to American-style memorial parks in which graves are marked with flat metal markers instead of the customary gravestone, stems from the last century. Throughout Europe, the neighborhoods around churches were then considered unhealthy owing to the overcrowding of cemetery grounds. Coffins were often stacked in cavernous graves until they were within a few feet or 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, all the while 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 buried in mass graves. The controversial law was opposed by many leading figures of the time because it disturbed traditional family graves and crypts, but was part of a crucial shift in community attitudes toward cemeteries. Churchyard burials were gradually all but discontinued with the state exerting a more direct administrative control over cemeteries. The result of such regulations created the Munich cemeteries we know today, many of which resemble municipal parks. Encompassing a large proportion of the city’s open space, they offer some of the widest selections of trees and shrubs to be found outside the Botanical Gardens. “Cemeteries are not simply about death,” says Huber “People go there for the solitude. They go there to escape, if only briefly, from the world. You often find people simply walking through cemeteries, admiring the trees and plants, drawn by the serenity and peace they offer. These days, cemeteries are as much for the living as they are for the dead.” <<<

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