Thoughts on their graves

While we have reasonable control over how we perceive ourselves in life, there is little control over how others see us in death. What gravestone they choose, how they decorate the grave with flowers, pictures and other thoughtful gestures.

On a recent trip to Europe I had a glimpse into the cultural differences of how death twists our perception of another. Starting off, in the United Kingdom, it is common to find a church surrounded by a cemetery, and while I am not following any religion, I have become very accustomed to this ‘traditional arrangement’. Perhaps it is for this particular reason that I felt so out of place when I found churches in France which had no graves, or cemeteries that had no church or chapel. This severed bond between church as an institution and death is a stark reminder that, in fact, we do not need death to be assigned to any religion. Death occurs, without prayers, gods or other figurative symbols. This liberation from the grip of an institution has led to a fascinating ‘grave culture’ in France, where you find local oddities, like a large number of pictures of the deceased, art (such as ceramic flowers or wreaths) which varies by region, and detailed engravings of the dead’s hobby on the stone itself.

As I left France and made my way across German cemeteries, new traditions cropped up. A greater variety of the stones themselves, but what became a contrast the farther East I travelled was the deceased’s reference to themselves: In the UK, old gravestones are usually labelled with ‘Name, wife/husband of Name’. Of course this has also changed in recent years as we socially seek greater gender equality, but I noticed that older German graves did not commonly have such a reference. They only referred to the name or, name and their profession.

A cultural oddity which, thinking of German stereotypes with their obsession for ambition, perhaps is little surprise. What surprised me though was how far back into time this tradition goes and how this seemingly keeps a gender neutrality (at least as a lingering thought on their graves).

One event stayed in my mind as a symbol for the knowledge one needs for the ‘culture in death’: still making use of the last energy of the day, I wandered the large Bergfriedhof in Heidelberg – capturing whatever a greyish light offered to my camera. Suddenly the voice of a middle aged man behind me broke a spell, he would like to ask for my opinion. Curiosity aroused, I followed him a few steps down the path where we came to a halt in front of a very neatly decorated grave with pink flowers centred in a large terracotta pot. I gave him my approval for his design concept based on the typical German’s need for symmetry, and then hastily retreated back to my quiet spot amongst the dead. Quite a first {after strolling through hundreds of cemeteries across Europe} but then I understood the connection he made only later: isn’t that what we all do, make the dead come to life in a particular way? whether in engravings, flowers and pictures, or as an artist on paper—

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