Grave Art

If you want to learn anything about how a society lives, see how they treat their dead.

A visit to any graveyard in Switzerland can be a rather underwhelming experience. The Swiss like order, cemeteries are neat and tidy, headstones are kept clean, the grass is trimmed and it feels more like a park than a shrine to the dead. There is little point looking for incredibly old gravestones – with some exceptions, most Swiss graves are reused within 25 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. Reused within 25 years. The so-called resting rule.

To save on space, graves are rented out. After the allotted time, the graves are cleared, and made ready for future occupants. Decorations, headstones and other adornments, if not claimed by the family, are disposed of by the cemetery staff.

This isn’t done without notice. Families are informed about the upcoming event and notices are placed in the cemetery, stating which graves are going to be cleared and above all, when this is event shall take place. So its not as if anyone is going to be surprised at their next visit, to find their dearly departed are missing.

For most people this is a bit of a conundrum. A headstone is all very well in a cemetery but unless you are of a particularly macabre bend, chances are you don’t want it in your garden, even if it would make an interesting and durable coffee table. More often than not, when unclaimed, the stones are broken up into gravel and used in road building or as fillers for the railway lines.

Contrary to popular opinion, the graves are made habitable for the next occupants but this does not mean that the dead are necessarily dug up. In most graveyards, they are left where they are – after 25 years there usually aren’t many remains anyway.  No one is going to get a bag of bones as a souvenir when the time comes to lift a grave. A graveyard gardener told me that when she does find remains in a reused grave, she simply reburies them in the same place.

Most people would deduce this is a rather unsentimental way of dealing with the dead. However space is at a premium in such a small country and graveyards can be viewed as a colossal waste of space. Bern has 4 cemeteries as of date – but it used to have 15 in all. As space became tight, the cemeteries were completely lifted and the land reused. The majority of them have been turned into parks and in one case, a parking lot.  The most famous of these is the Rosengarten – with its spectacular views of the city and over 200 kinds of roses, it is one of the most beautiful spots in Bern. Many roadworks and renovations in Bern have been disrupted to immense joy of the archaeological department when workers have stumbled across yet another forgotten graveyard.

Unusually, in Bern’s Schosshalden Cemetery, there is a little corner, tucked away at the very back of the grounds, that is dedicated to unique headstones, a museum if you will, to grave art.

The stones which are exhibited here fall into the following criteria:

– representative of a particular epoch
-are artistically beautiful and thus worthy of preservation
-have a unique quality.

Nor is this limited to stones. This can also be works of art made of metal or wood. Unlike the other stones in the cemetery, these are left to nature and are no longer cleaned.

Left to their own devices, these stones take on a unique character, partially obscured by nature – though no dead sleep here, their memories are alive.

Nor are all the stones so somber. Some are whimsical…
…or just down right weird.
The stones reflect the personalities of the remembered, their unique characteristics when they were alive, honored on after death – and now, preserved as art.
When their time comes, maybe this couple will be honored in the same way.

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