Uniquely Dead The Rise of Quirky Gravestones

Two sociologists are documenting a growing trend in Germany's burial culture -- personalized and whimsical headstones, varying from the geeky to the erotic. In the age of Facebook, they are akin to a final personal profile, a person's last chance to establish who they were or wanted to be.

Christian looks up cheerfully from the image on his headstone, deeply tanned and giving the camera a thumbs-up. The snapshot was likely taken on his last vacation.

Thorsten Benkel takes a quick look, photographs the picture, then hurries on. His colleague Matthias Meitzler follows, the two men making their way through the rows of graves in Frankfurt's South Cemetery.

Photographs on gravestones were common around 100 years ago, says Benkel, a sociologist at Frankfurt University. Then came the Nazis, World War II and death on a massive scale. What counted was the collective, not the individual, and photos went out of fashion.

Benkel stops again, apologizing for the interruption but saying he really has to take a picture of this one, which has "Mommy is the best" engraved on the stone.

Society changed in the decades after the war, Benkel continues as he walks on. Secularization and individualization increased, the church grew weaker and people's sense of individuality stronger. And portraits in cemeteries came back into fashion.

Benkel names some particularly stand-out examples he's seen. There was a life-sized statue of an iron founder, and one of a reclining naked woman. "It was an unmistakably erotic pose," he says of that gravestone, "and this in a small town cemetery!"

Reflecting Societal Change

In the late 1960s, Germans went so far as to go to the courts to demand greater freedom of expression in cemeteries. Social scientists decried "conformity" and cemeteries full of graves as unimaginative as row houses. Benkel, though, can see how new trends arise. He says graves have become more unusual, more surprising and more self-centered -- and he considers this a good thing. "A cemetery is a public place," he explains. "It must and will reflect the changes that occur in society."

Benkel gives the example of one headstone he saw, made of heavy stone in a very traditional style. But on it, five kittens and a puppy gazed devotedly, framed by a rainbow. Benkel says he finds the most kitsch, but also the most touching expressions of farewell, in pet cemeteries.

"Field research between Vienna and Berlin" is how Benkel describes his work. He says he and Meitzler have visited 270 cemeteries in the last two years, and have photographed and archived 19,000 gravestones. Theirs is a sociology of cemeteries.

Benkel thumbs through images of his various finds on his cell phone. There's Super Mario, hip-high and in full color, or a statue of a deceased boy in his jersey, holding a soccer ball. There are headstones with the departed's toothbrush and hard drive built in, and graves that declare their occupants to be fans of Star Trek, Kiss or Metallica. And there are the many portraits. For example, Johanna (1936-2010) is shown together with her husband, who is kissing her on the cheek. Other pictures were clearly taken at the store or the bowling alley. One in Frankfurt shows a woman reclining in a negligee.

Today's cemeteries, it seems, contain a bit of the Facebook concept, with the gravestone as a last personal profile, carved in stone for decades to come. It represents a last chance for a person to establish, once and for all, who they were -- or who they wanted to be -- even if the person's survivors do get the final say.

Some use their gravestones to take a final accounting, publicly and without shame. "I wanted so much, but I didn't achieve it all," reads one stone. In the city of Mannheim, one person chose a clearer message: "It's all shit." Some even issue a final threat from beyond the grave: "Vengeance is mine."

A Small, But Growing Phenomenon

Cemeteries, it turns out, reflect many of the same processes that occur anywhere people interact with one another. There are trendsetters (neighboring graves copy one another), recurring motifs (cars, occasionally even tanks), fads (the rose is the new cross) and regional characteristics (the Ruhrpott, an industrial area in western Germany, is more conservative, while the east of the country is more liberal).

At the same time, there's a growing countermovement: anonymous graves, which give no sign of who, if anyone, is buried in them. Perhaps these graves are a reaction to all the ostentation around them, or perhaps they're simply a way of saving money.

Benkel and Meitzler have interviewed theologians, undertakers and stonecutters, who say they carry out surviving family members' wishes to the extent that the cemetery in question allows. In the town of Bergisch Gladbach, there's even a grave with a QR code -- a symbol that, when scanned with a cell phone, brings up a website with videos and photos.

At the moment, personalized graves are still an exception to the rule -- Benkel estimates they make up perhaps five percent of all graves. He believes this is in part because most people who die are older and choose to be buried in a more conservative fashion, but also because unusual gravestones are more expensive. Many people don't realize all the options at their disposal. In addition, just over half of all Germany's deceased are cremated, not buried.

As for Benkel, he finds many of the inscriptions he comes across charming. "Laugh" and "Make something of your life" both made him smile. And he likes the cryptic ones, for example, "Let's start the next revolution in August."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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