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Death in East Germany, 1945-1990

Death in East Germany, 1945-1990

Felix Robin Schulz
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Death in East Germany, 1945-1990
    Book Description:

    As the first historical study of East Germany's sepulchral culture, this book explores the complex cultural responses to death since the Second World War. Topics include the interrelated areas of the organization and municipalization of the undertaking industry; the steps taken towards a socialist cemetery culture such as issues of design, spatial layout, and commemorative practices; the propagation of cremation as a means of disposal; the wide-spread introduction of anonymous communal areas for the internment of urns; and the emergence of socialist and secular funeral rituals. The author analyses the manifold changes to the system of the disposal of the dead in East Germany-a society that not only had to negotiate the upheaval of military defeat but also urbanization, secularization, a communist regime, and a planned economy. Stressing a comparative approach, the book reveals surprising similarities to the development of Western countries but also highlights the intricate local variations within the GDR and sheds more light on the East German state and its society.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-014-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Figures, Tables and Graphs
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Glossary
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    On 27 March 2002, Charlotte Ulbricht died. Her final resting place was not, as was usual, next to her husband, the first post-war leader of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht. He had been buried in the Special Cemetery for Socialists (Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten) alongside communist heroes Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Ernst Thälmann, as well as fellow SED politicians such as Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl, in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde. Since its reopening in January 1951 the Friedrichsfelde site had become effectively the GDR’s Valhalla — not only for its politicians but also for writers and poets such as Erich Weinert, Friedrich Wolf, or...

  7. Chapter 1 The Origins of Modern German Sepulchral Culture
    (pp. 13-40)

    Historically, attitudes to death have gone through manifold changes. For example, gravediggers in the cities of early-modern Germany had a status similar to that of the executioner: they were unclean persons to be avoided by the rest of society, unable ever to enter a pub without permission from all those inside.¹ Until recently, and for much of the twentieth century, the fear of the unfamiliar and the incomprehensible seemed to have been the strongest factors leading to a certain estrangement from death in modern times.² Despite death’s inevitability and changes in aesthetics — e.g., the ‘good’ death in the clean white...

  8. Chapter 2 After Death: The Organization of Disposal
    (pp. 41-83)

    When the surrender terms were signed in Reims on 7 May 1945, Germany lay in ruins in more than one sense. The war had left its physical and psychological marks upon the country and its people. Aerial photographs of the five largest cities, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne and Leipzig, bear witness to the extent of the devastation. The death rates for Berlin showed the extent of the human losses, while additionally there was the devastation of the physical environment. A census of the available habitable space in Berlin on 16 April 1946, nearly a year after the end of the...

  9. Chapter 3 Resting Places? Cemeteries in the GDR
    (pp. 84-123)

    Whereas the previous chapter focused on the organization and administration of disposal, this one looks at the location of disposal. This has artificially separated two very closely linked institutions: the burial service provider and the cemetery. The former offers an array of services and the organizational framework needed for a funeral, whilst the latter generally furnishes the space where the funeral is conducted, the resting place, and increasingly the regular maintenance of the burial site. ¹ This separation is necessary in order to give cemeteries and undertaking and their respective roles in the socialist sepulchral culture the individual space they...

  10. Chapter 4 Burning Bodies: Cremation in the GDR
    (pp. 124-158)

    When the corpse of the poet Shelley was washed ashore after a shipwreck in 1822, his friend Lord Byron arranged for it to be burned on a pyre — akin to the Indian custom. Whilst this act did not send ripples through the fabric of European burial culture, let alone rip it apart, it did set a powerful and inspirational precedent. The idea of cremating humans has been around for a considerable time; Sir Thomas Browne’s treatise of 1658 (subsequent to the finding of an ancient urn) or the legalization of cremation in the wake of the French Revolution are examples...

  11. Chapter 5 The Communal Burial of Ashes: ‘New’ Spaces for Disposal
    (pp. 159-181)

    With few exceptions the German cemetery before 1870 had been a space dominated by individual and family graves. The subsequent experience of social change caused by industrialization and urbanization, as well as by the major conflicts in the twentieth century, was accompanied by a number of transformations in the cemetery landscape. Many cemeteries, especially urban ones, saw a transition in the use of space. This shift was not away from the private as such, defined by the predominant functions of burial and the tribute of friends and family, but it was overlaid with a perceptible increase in public commemoration.¹ Large...

  12. Chapter 6 Funerals in the GDR: A Diversity of Rituals
    (pp. 182-201)

    This was the alarmist reaction of official West German counterpropaganda in 1958/59 to the orchestrated introduction of additional socialist rites and the most open anti-religious policies since 1951. This specific booklet was not merely targeted against secular funerals, but also socialist naming ceremonies (replacing the sacrament of baptism), socialist marriage ceremonies (as an alternative to the church ceremony) and above all theJugendweihe(as the secularized version of confirmation). The vehement language of the document is born out of a period that saw the highest tension between state and church in the GDR as well as the strongest drive to...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 202-212)

    Cemetery director Georg Hannig’s words, written in 1925 for his profession’s foremost trade journal, sought to warn against erosion of professionalism typified by the declining craftsmanship of gravestones and the appearance of cemeteries. Moreover, it served as a clear indictment of what Hannig saw as the prevalence of economic considerations in a profession that should not be determined by the profane motivation of profit. This one sentence, therefore, encapsulates a pervasive and deeply rooted cultural pessimism. Many in charge of aspects of German sepulchral culture since 1945 held similar views, regularly decrying the commercialization of disposal.² Moreover, this criticism posited...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-228)
  15. Index
    (pp. 229-232)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-234)