Prayer beads below a name board on a tree at the Coburger Land Ruheforst forest cemetery in Germany.
Heribert Prantl

MUNICHGrief 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.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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