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Kategorien/Categories:    ›Kultur/Culture‹  ›EN‹   –  27.11.2012

Graveyard culture

How do we bury our dead? It’s always enlightening to take a look at a country’s cemeteries, which showcase differences in graveyard culture. Not surprisingly, a lot of it is actually dictated as much by climate as it is by cultural and religious influences.

Blair Cemetery, NH

The most obvious difference between a traditional New England cemetery and one in Germany is the lack of (live) flowers. Headstones around here are typically surrounded by a vast expanse of lawn with no discernible borders marking the grave sites. There just isn't much along the line of individual landscaping around the graves. A touch of color from an artificial flower here and there, or a wreath on Memorial or Veterans’ Day is all you see, mostly. In Germany, on the other hand, a walk through a cemetery can resemble a walk through a park or flower show, with ample displays of seasonal blooming annuals and shrubs - carefully maintained mini-gardens, so to speak.

The predominantly green graveyards around here seem more austere, perhaps inviting a more contemplative mood. At any rate, it makes you think about all the lawn mowing that’s needed! Some communities have actually started to use sheep and goats to keep their cemetery lawns short. It beats listening to a noisy combustion engine, if you ask me, and certainly is gentler on the environment, too.

gravestoneContrary to the more common Colonial time practice of burying the dead in churchyards, the secular graveyards of Puritan New England were common burial grounds set aside on the edge of town. In their rebellion against "papist" practices, early Puritans rejected churchyard burials as heretical and idolatrous. Headstone images from this period also reflect the rejection of formal Christian iconography in favor of more secular figures, such as skulls or images from nature.

A typical climate-related feature of 19th century New England cemeteries is the reception vault or tomb. These were used during the cold winter months to store the bodies of the deceased, when the ground was too frozen to dig a grave by hand. Typically, vaults ranged from simple subterranean structures built into the side of a hill to freestanding, ornate, above-ground buildings, sometimes connected to a small chapel. While modern mechanical power tools have replaced the need for receiving vaults in today’s cemeteries, they remain a prominent feature at historical graveyards.

receiving vault at cemeteryEven though cemeteries around here seem much simpler and starker when compared to the average one in Germany, they definitely have something going for them: location!  Situated on high ground on the edge of town, they’re often blessed with exceptional views of the surrounding countryside. A bonus for both the living and the dead, wouldn’t you say?