Dieter Pausch has formed a close connection with the departed over the past 25 years as caretaker of Munich's eastern graveyard. But the jovial Bavarian's job also includes taking care of the living.
The cemetery keeper ensures that plots and pathways are clean so the bereaved can lay their loved ones to rest with dignity. Moments like the solemn procession from the funeral parlor to the open grave are planned in exact detail. Pausch knows that these few minutes, though they have become routine for his colleagues and undertakers, are filled with grief for relatives. Before the bell rings and the ceremony begins, he has checked the route through the headstones, removing any potential obstacles, even the gardener's wheelbarrows.
"It is about our values, how we get along with one another," Pausch says.
But not all the cemetery's visitors see it that way. Supervisors are sometimes forced to interrupt funeral processions because a growing number of people there are more concerned with a long and healthy life than a final resting place. A growing number of Munich residents looking to escape crowded parks in favor of more tranquil landscapes have adopted the cemetery as part of their fitness route. Neon-clad runners, their ears stuffed with iPod earphones, sometimes appear, puffing and panting, in front of a solemn funeral procession. Such encounters usually happen in the morning during the first funeral of the day, or after offices have closed for the evening. The offenders are usually women, because "they are more figure conscious," Pausch says.
They jog through the rows of gravesites, along gravelled pathways, beneath the shade of the old trees. Thanks to its thick brick walls the graveyard is free of traffic noise and exhaust fumes. Exercise fans stretch their muscles on grave stones and marble angels. "Thoughtless," Pausch calls them, saying he is often tempted to reprimand them for the interruption. But he bites his tongue. "The service has already been spoiled enough already," he says.
Hammocks and Tai Chi
But in Munich, using cemeteries as parks is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. In good weather the Bavarian capital's parks and green paths are filled to the brim. The banks of the Isar River, the English Garden, the Nymphenburg Canal and the Olympic Park teem with joggers, cyclists, nordic walkers, skaters and dog owners, all seeking to escape their offices and apartments. By comparison, the cemeteries are serene.
The large forest graveyard in the south of the city has already been incorporated into the training routes of Munich's more ambitious joggers. Meanwhile, the old northern graveyard, in the Schwabing district near the Technical University, has transformed into both a sporting ground and a popular student hangout. Between lectures students recline on the lawns between the graves, often in various states of undress.
Elsewhere, new mothers spread out picnic blankets for their offspring, and children's birthdays are held in the shade of large crosses. Tai chi groups gather here at dawn to greet the new day. Those seeking serious relaxation even unfurl their hammocks.
To the mixed crowd, using the 850-grave cemetery as a playground is far from irreverent. No one has been buried there for more than 72 years, the students argue, insisting the deceased are unlikely to have any surviving relatives who wish to visit the graves in peace. In their eyes it would be a waste to let the green oasis next to the campus lie fallow.
"But it is still a graveyard," insists Pausch, even though the cemetary, unlike the one he works for in the eastern part of the city, is largely inactive. Still, city laws don't forbid the use of cemeteries for leisure activities. Only cars, bikes and dogs are banned from municipal graveyards. Aside from these rules, authorities rely on the common sense and respect of visitors.
But graveyard supervisors wish they had stricter guidelines. Some people, Pausch complains, "treat the graveyard like an adventure playground."