ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Where Have all the Dead Folk Gone?

I recently had the opportunity of going on a little tour of Melaten Friedhof, the municipal cemetery in Cologne. Etymologically the name Melaten is derived from ‘malade’, the French word for illness, as there used to be a hospital for leprosy patients, Maladen, on the site of the present cemetery. Until 1829, only the Catholics of the city could be buried here (they have always been the dominant community in Cologne); after that it was made available to Protestants too, and in principal, to all other communities. Having always been fascinated by graves and graveyards, I was eager to explore Melaten. However, I found there all manners of curious, and unexpected, histories of cultural practice that have made me rethink not merely death, but life too!

Catholic graves, with replicas of the Cologne ‘Dom’ or Cathedral

Melaten is famous as it has the graves of many of the city’s luminaries, and haute bourgeoisie. Of these, the one that was instantly recognisable to me was the grave of the Farina family, famous for their ancestor, John Maria, who invented the ‘Kolnisch Wasser’ or Eau de Cologne. That apart, until the 20th century it was, true to cemetery fashions in many parts of Europe, an emporium for competing art traditions. These spoke not merely of the 19th century’s fascination with Classical tropes, but also about wealth, power, and that most human of conditions – the need to be remembered.

Skeletons are very old Christian death symbols; here, seen characteristically, wielding a scythe and an hourglass, merging both Death and Time

While Catholics remained more restrained, and almost predictable, in their use of motifs referencing landmarks like the ‘Dom’ (as the Cologne cathedral is known locally), Protestants took to experimenting with Greek symbols like that of Thanatos, thus celebrating their difference by a claiming of pagan memento mori. In a radical shift of styles, one can see all manners of representational explorations in sculpting Thanatos.  From the more wistful, and winged, early renditions, contemplatively leaning upon his upturned torch (symbolising life ending), this figure interestingly undergoes a lot of depictive transformations over time. Moreover, he also undergoes a sex change, and by the end of the 19th, and early 20th centuries one begins to see the more feminised versions of Death– both sedately angelic, but also frankly erotic.

Thanatos 1

Thanatos 2

Thanatos 3

However, what I had not been prepared for was an entirely different matter relating to graves and burial practices in Germany. Unlike in most other parts of the world, Germans do not own, or even have rights in perpetuity over, the little patch of land in which they are buried. Instead, they rent these from the State; in more recent times, the rental contract lasts a mere 15 years. Once this period comes to an end the State, by sticking a notice with a variety of different options on the grave, gives the family of the deceased a possibility of choices, of which renewal is one. However, should no one respond to the notice, the remains of the dead are briskly and efficiently scooped up and removed, making place for the next corpse in queue to be buried in the same spot! The encounter with this extraordinary, and State driven, ‘desecration’ amidst a profusion of memorabilia certainly made me wonder – not merely about how naturalised the practice seemed to be, but also about what might have been the origins of such a transactional notion of afterlife. 

Renewal contract notice from the Municipal government on a grave

Wandering about the delightfully landscaped Melaten, I finally stumbled across the grave of one Mohammed Zakaria and, those who appear to have been, other members of his family. While the gravestone didn’t seem to state quite clearly who these people were, the grave stood out, because apart from all else, this seemed to be the only Muslim family in the cemetery. This started me off on a historical quest - one which is still incomplete, and awash with perplexing questions. Where are the Muslim graves in this city?

An unusual sight – a Muslim grave in Cologne’s “municipality” cemetery

Germany has a reasonably big Muslim population, the majority of which is Turkish, or of Turkish origin. Cologne possibly, from informal sources, is almost 30% Muslim. Yet no one I have asked seems to know where Muslims of the city are buried. Finally, in sheer frustration, I turned to the Internet, and began to discover at least some of the complex reasons for the absence of a significant part of the city’s population from one of its biggest public cemeteries. From what appears to be a long standing problem, Muslims in Germany are resisting the State’s attempts at “standardising” citizenship – by imposing uniform burial practices on all its residents – as aspects of this clearly clash with Islamic customary norms. The idea that the majority of the community (at least the Turkish) preferred to take their dead back to their country of origin for burial is shocking – not merely for the distress and costs that families might incur. It speaks volumes for a State that simply refuses to entertain the idea of ‘difference’, thereby marginalising an already beleaguered minority. Sadly, it merely adds to the many indignities, and alienation, that descendants of ‘gastarbeiters’ (guest workers) and immigrants, routinely face in the country. An unfortunate case of death mimicking life, and becoming, to twist a metaphor, an ‘equaliser’ with a difference.

About Author

G. Arunima ( is a historian by training, and teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has researched and written on different areas of social and cultural history, including family and kinship; aesthetics and visuality; and more recently religion and faith practices.
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