Uniquely Dead: The Rise of Quirky Gravestones

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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