Thursday, October 31, 2013

Allerheiligen / All Saints' Day

Here in southern Germany, Allerheiligen (All Saints' Day) is a holiday. In fact, it's a stiller Feiertag ("quiet holiday") which means stores, schools, and most businesses are closed, there is no mail delivered, and one must not do yard work, building projects or anything else that is very noisy and could disturb the neighbors.

Southern Germany is predominantly Catholic, but even those who are not Catholic respect this day and the spirit behind it. The northern half of Germany is predominantly Protestant, and November 1st is a regular working day up there. Since November 1st is also my birthday, I have another reason to be glad we live here in the south!

St. John's cross, Isle of Iona

No one needs me to go into the religious history of All Saints' Day because you can google that yourself. But Allerheiligen is very much a cultural tradition here, even for those who are not religious. While in Wisconsin stores are selling costumes, decorations, huge blow-up ghosts, witches, and spiders, and megatons of candy for Halloween, in southern Germany stores, especially florists and garden centers but also grocery stores and gift shops, are highlighting Grabschmuck - grave ornaments, floral arrangements, stone angels, candles, and lanterns. These are not plastic decorations for homes; they are intended to be placed on graves of departed loved ones. This is not a time for costume parties and candy (Germans have Fasching for that, in March). It's a time to remember those we love who have passed away and tend their graves by weeding, pulling out the summer flowers, and planting flowers and plants that are hearty enough to survive the winter. The arrangements one can buy at this time are so subtly beautiful and seasonal that (before I realized they were intended for graves) I almost bought one for our living room!

Grabschmuck available at our local garden center

In Germany one rents a grave plot for a period of years called the Ruhezeit ("resting time"), usually 20-25 years, for a minimum of €1200 ($1655). At the end of that time a surviving family member can renew the rental for another 20-25 years, and I believe the charge is about the same. Obviously the amount varies greatly throughout Germany and increases with inflation. As long as someone has paid the rental/renewal fee, the deceased rests there in peace. When the family decides not to continue paying the rental fee or there are no more family members left, any remains are moved to a respectful place within the Friedhof ("peace yard", or cemetery) and the plot becomes available for a more recently deceased person. This may seem a bit shocking to Americans, but Germany simply doesn't have enough space for permanent graves, and land costs a pretty penny over here. Of course, the graves of famous and important people are protected and the headstones remain, and if you walk through very old Friedhöfe you will see headstones dating back centuries for which surely no one is still paying. I imagine that if the time comes when that space is needed, as long as the grave or cemetery is not protected for historical reasons, the grave will be reused.

Some families pay a florist to tend the grave and do seasonal plantings during the year. The minimum for that service is about €500 ($690) per year, and many do that care and planting themselves. The sure thing is that the graves are tended and quite beautiful, especially around Allerheiligen. Most graves look lovingly cared for and decorated with colorful fresh flowers, lively bushes and shrubs, little round stones with sayings like "Immer in unseren Gedanken" or "in stillen Gedanken" ("Always in our thoughts" or "in quiet thoughts"), and candles in enclosed glass lanterns, often burning. Especially at this time of year you will see many people stopping at graves, walking quietly through the Friedhof, stopping at a memorial and lighting a candle... I have always been struck by the beauty of Friedhöfe in Germany.

The Keckonen plot in Calumet, MI

In the U.S. cemetery plots are purchased, not rented. Once the plot is purchased, the occupant and his or her headstone rest there eternally. My family has eight plots together in a cemetery in Upper Michigan, which my great-grandfather purchased in 1959 for a grand total of $2.00 (€1,46). That is not a typo. Any of his direct descendants, along with their spouses, have the right to be buried in the remaining available space within these eight plots. These are Rasengräber (grass graves), and the cemetery employees take care of the mowing, weeding, raking, and so on. There is no fee for that service. Another interesting difference is that in the U.S. if a person is cremated, the cremains can be handed over to a family member, who can then transport them to the cemetery where they will be buried. This is not allowed in Germany.

I have often said that everything (or at least almost everything) is more expensive in Germany. Clearly, even being deceased costs more here.

In part because of the expense of purchasing and keeping a private grave, Germans have been exploring other options in recent years. For instance, there are 46 Friedwälder in Germany, which are areas of forests set aside for burials. The urn is buried under a tree, there is no need or charge for Grabpflege ("grave tending") because nature takes care of that, and the Ruhezeit can be up to 99 years in some Friedwälder. There's something about that idea that appeals to both Martin and me.

But tomorrow on Allerheiligen, we will enjoy a quiet day, take a long walk, think about the loved ones we've lost, cook a nice meal, and appreciate the start of a long weekend.

No comments:

Post a Comment