MUNICH — Grief is demonstrative resistance against loss. Cemeteries and funerals are ways to combat death, preserving the lives of the departed by allowing people to remember them. Death, we are told, is a part of life. But those who went earlier this month to the cemetery on All Hallows, All Souls Day, will have to ask themselves if these time-worn sentiments still hold true. There are far fewer people standing at the gravesides of their loved ones, and many more graves that have been left unmarked.
Local newspapers in the city of Münster recently complained that no funerals are allowed to take place on Saturdays, since weekday ceremonies force people to have to take time off from work to attend. What kind of customer service is that?, the papers asked. People would be much more willing to honor the dead on a Saturday because they wouldn’t have to skip work. More willing?
Back in the day, town clocks were stopped as a mark of respect when someone died.
You may ask yourself if there is less confronting of death since cemeteries have been removed from the hearts of our cities, and have become less visible. The old cemeteries have become open air museums. The new cemeteries are on the periphery of town. And the newest cemeteries cannot even be identified as such. Within these so-called “peace woods,” burial grounds located within forests, nothing is left to remind you of the person who has found their last place of rest among the roots of trees, save the occasional wooden plaque affixed to a tree trunk.
A child's colorfully decorated grave in Stuttgart, Germany — Photo: Lino Mirgeler/DPA/ZUMA
Has the resistance to loss been diminished? Is this due to the fact that people live longer and that periods of grief are shorter?
In Argentina, it was of the utmost importance to the relatives of those who were”disappeared” during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s to find and bury their remains. The people who risked becoming mere numbers in torture chambers needed to be grieved for by those left behind. Avoiding anonymity was a recurring theme in those seeking to mark death of their loved ones. And yet, death is becoming anonymous by choice in the West.
The end of grief and death rituals marks the disintegration of close-knit communities and religious ties. But it is also a statement on the power of economic factors over questions of life and death. The old cemeteries were decommissioned because the municipalities could not afford the personnel and upkeep in the center of town.
Many people nowadays are single, or live in patchwork families, and are mobile, their lives increasingly unpredictable. This also pushes us towards anonymous and cheap burials. But the burial places of the dead are, nonetheless, a reflection of society. The anonymous burial may be the ultimate symbol of a disconnected society that, in death, is searching for roots, namely those of trees.
There is no such thing as “the” society any longer. Which is why there is no such thing as “the” burial. The people of the 21st century have not yet decided how much space they are willing to give to death and how much resistance they want to put up when faced with it. For the time being, everyone is on their own.