A few words on German burial practices

You’re only truly dead when you’re forgotten
-Some Dead Guy

In the States we have something called ‘perpetual care’. Pay enough money and a team of landscapers will keep your grave free of long grass and detritus until the end of time- even if nobody’s alive to visit you. Some day in the distant future, archaeologists may look upon the weed wacker as the all-important bridge to the afterlife in the same way we view the mummies and sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt.


The Weed Wacker: today’s symbol of everlasting life

While in Germany I visited three cemeteries*, and observed a much different practice. Instead of teams of anonymous men zooming around on lawn mowers, there are wells and watering cans available for the public to plant gardens over their family grave sites.** Whereas we throw flowers on the surface of the Earth, they plant flowers inside the Earth.

At one cemetery, I watched widows buzzing around with watering buckets, trowels and clippers, tending to their husband’s graves as if they were were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. They were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. It just happened to be in a cemetery, above their husband’s decomposed bodies.



Oh yeah, that’s another difference between US and German burial practices- rather than bury you in a gigantic, impermeable soda can, the Germans simply bury your body in the ground so that you may rot and become the nutrient-rich soil that fuels the flowers your loved ones cultivate above. Beautiful, right? Organic, symbolic of renewal and everlasting life.

But what happens when your wife dies, too? The kids take care of the grave, sure- but they won’t spend as much time pruning and transplanting the daisies you continue pushing up. And what happens when they die, and their children die, etc.?

You start wishing you paid a group of landscapers to take care of your grave forever, that’s what. Because what happens is eventually nobody’s around to maintain the grave site, and it becomes overgrown.

In between Care and Forgotten-hood

In between Care and Forgotten-hood

At one cemetery I saw this in clear progression.*** In one section were the vivacious women buzzing around. In another section were the skeletons of hedges and whatever perennials continued to bloom- unsystematically. Then, in the oldest section of the cemetery, things had been so neglected that it was basically a forest with headstones hidden in the underbrush. This was the most eery part; I felt like I was in a haunted woods. A few of the tombstones were hundreds of years old, but others were only a couple of generations.


Vergessenheit, the German word for ‘oblivion’, translates literally as “forgotten-hood”

“You’re only dead when you’re forgotten”. In other words, you’re only dead when people cease the lawncare around your grave site. While in the States we have the illusion of perpetual care, it’s actually vapid, because who cares if your grave site is impeccable if nobody comes to visit? Nobody, that’s who.

German burial practices- while perhaps depressing and decrepit- are actually more authentic and true to experience. The fact is after enough time everyone will be forgotten. But look: a healthy forest!


*One cemetery was actually in Austria, but for all intents and purposes, in a german-speaking country
**Plots also tend not to be for a single individual, but an entire family. Under one tomb stone you may have several family members decomposed, mingling together.
*** This was in Schwerin, Germany. Schwerin, part of former East Germany, is poorer than most cities. This perhaps made the lack-of-care more pronounced than is typical.

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