For genealogists, cemeteries can play an important role when searching for some ancestor’s life dates. A photograph of a grave stone may even render a complicated research in an archive unnecessary! Some graves also tell stories about the family of the deceased, his or her occupation or other unique features that are able to bring us closer to the lives of our ancestors.
Especially for Jewish genealogy research, tombstones are an essential source. As in the Third Reich, masses of documents on Jewish genealogy were destroyed, epitaphs on Jewish cemeteries are a crucial hint to the legacy the Nazis were so eager to wipe out. Quite apart from that, Jewish cemeteries exert a great attraction to visitors due to their unique nature.
Generally, there are a lot of cemeteries that next to their original purpose attract uninvolved visitors as well. These may go on pilgrimages to the gravesites of famous personalities: On Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, security staff needed to be installed to stop disturbances by visitors of Jim Morrison’s grave. Europe’s biggest cemetery which is located in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf is one of the most popular local recreation areas of the city and is used as a park by most visitors.
When I did research for last Saturday’s German cemetery day, I discovered that the topic is more entertaining than one would think. “Entschuldigen Sie, dass ich liegen bleibe” (“Excuse me for not getting up“), the work of the German sociologists Thorsten Benkel and Matthias Meitzler contains the most bizarre epitaphs and gravesites of the country and shows tendencies of individualization: Graves are becoming more colorful and unique, contain information about the deceased’s hobbies and character or even show links to websites – cemetery 2.0!
Graves are a mirror to the country’s history like that: After the uniformity and darkness of the Nazi era, many people wanted more color and individualism in their lives – and after.