Graveyards are a strange place. They’re peaceful, but also sometimes creepy. Case in point, these photos I have here. These are photos from the Alter Friedhof in Freiburg im Breisgau, where I spent a year living.
The featured image above is the stone in a mausoleum that says:
Weinet nicht meine Lieben.
Ich bin glücklich.
In English: “Cry not my beloved, I am happy”. Which is kind of a darling sentiment…I mean, maybe the person was suffering a long illness that death was a relief from? Or perhaps they were just miserable in life, and death brought them freedom. That’s nothing to frown at; it would be a good thing.
Elisabeth von Kleinsorg.
Alt 5. Jahre
Starb am 14. Sept. 1797
Or, young Elisabeth who died at 5 years old in 1797. Which is actually horrifying. I mean, it was a fact of life, still is even, that children sometimes die. And perhaps its a comfort to think that your now-dead child is in a better place (Heaven); but to me, this is just exceptionally morbid. It’s a baby child. I don’t really think such words quite suit for a child. But then again, what else could a parent or adult put in response to a 5 year old dying?
But then you have other things in graveyards, like this. Yeah, a skull with some piece of metal piercing its gaping maw through to the cheek. This was perched atop one of the pillar grave stones in the cemetery.
Weirdest thing – there was no explanation. No hint on the stone as to why such a morbid image. I guess skeleton skulls have a place in symbolism of graveyards…but a metal-pierced face is absolutely not normal. I’ve never seen anything like it before outside of German cemeteries in south-western Germany. Because while the Alter Friedhof was the first place I saw this, I also saw something similar in a graveyard in the Alsace region, dating from a time when that land was underneath German control. So it’s, as far as I know from what I’ve seen, a fairly German phenomenon.
Also, mausoleums in Germany (lots of Europe, too) have stunning work like this. I mean…it’s plaster work, not engraving or carving. It’s old, still intact plaster work that is so clear and colorful you can still see everything going on, and read the commentary. Which is stunning enough, and actually, if you look at the artwork, this is beautiful. There’s the molding (roses and goldwork) on the teal-blue background around this gate. The gate leads to a private mausoleum of an old family from the area, back when this cemetery was in use. It’s really quite gorgeous, and the work tells quite an interesting story across the wall above this single panel.
All of this just to really say that graveyards are strange. They can be hauntingly beautiful, with such work as this plaster work. Or they also have the more creepy stuff like the metal-spiked skull on a gravestone.
Then there’s symbolism behind a lot of these things. — mostly Christian related, because most graveyards are indeed related to Christian symbology.
Like the lamb — for Christ. Or a dove/bird which can symbolize the same, or God. The praying hands (obvious symbol). And crosses, which are ubiquitous. I don’t think I’ve been to a cemetery with less than 85% of the stones having a cross or some symbol of Christianity on them. Then you’ve got actual coffins on gravestones, which I suspect simply must be a point to the mortality of human life–why else would one have a coffin in their headstone? Or a clock. I think a clock has to mean the same thing. —- this website has some good symbolism.
Or this kind of thing. This is the headstone of a Church sponsor in the Freiburg Minster. Which is not uncommon; a lot of cathedrals, minsters, churches and monasteries have these things. The Cologne Cathedral has a few of these, outside the actual sarcophagi of important patrons in the naves. In Maulbronn (a monastery in Baden-Württemberg) the monastery has these same things. Not uncommon, actually. After all, if you were rich and important enough to patronize a monastery, church, minster, or something, it was not uncommon to be buried in a place of prestige within the building proper.
That has to have been one of the props per say of that time frame. After all, being important and powerful enough to be buried in the local church itself, to have your name graven into the stone of the floor or the wall–it was a powerful symbol. And it would have brought your family prestige beyond just being buried in a premiere graveyard or location within the local cemetery. Because not just anyone got to be buried inside the building. You had to be a bishop, a royal, noble, or somehow powerfully connected enough to warrant such a thing. It wasn’t your local butcher who got buried inside the church itself.
But more disturbing — from my point of view as an American, is what happened to the grounds outside a minster/church/cathedral. See, back in the early middle ages, there was not official cemeteries for these churches. You literally buried the people who died just outside the church. There would have been a wooden or stone fence to enclose the church grounds, and people were buried within these walls. But as time went on, too many people ended up dead, and people needed to expand the land usage.
So this photo is of the cobblestone directly outside the Freiburg Minster. I am standing back only five feet from the outside wall of the Minster, looking out onto the Münsterplatz (Minster Square). This ground, where the people and horses are standing, used to be within the Minster wall, and where people were buried. As time went on, this ground, the cobblestones, were put directly over graves. That means, as I was walking around the Minster Square, I am literally walking over people’s graves. Granted, yes, the people have been dead for well over 600 years, but still. It was disturbing when I first learned it.
But that’s because of my being an American, and how we handle such things. As a matter of practicality in the Middle Ages in Europe, why would you dig up the grave? No, never would happen (not unless your family was very important and wanted to move your body to a family mausoleum of graveyard) for the normal person. Once the graveyard was in an area needed for daily usage, right around the church/cathedral/minster, they would pave it over. It might not be the case for all cities, but in Freiburg, the city’s solution to their need for land for market and business was to pave over the graves and just go about daily life. At first it was weird, and I admit I was a bit put off by thinking about daily walking over corpses…but it’s not anything that you think about living there. It’s just a fact of life.
Really all this is just to say that graveyards, cemeteries, and the land used for them are strange. They can be gorgeous, mysterious, perhaps peaceful…but also mind-numbingly strange and creepy.∗