There is a growing trend to make the grave of a deceased loved one very personal to show how he was in life. Christian symbols are increasingly being joined by individual grave decorations. Clowns and carnival guards are also getting in on the act.
Interviewer: Mrs. Will, as is well known, the fifth season is over for carnivalists on Ash Wednesday. In cemeteries such as Melaten, however, one can find graves all year round that are deliberately decorated with cheerful companions such as clowns or carnival guards. Yet a cemetery is the last place one would expect the expression of cheerfulness of this kind…
Eva-Maria Will (consultant for pastoral care of mourning): Now you could say: If not in Cologne, where else… But seriously: Many people increasingly have the need to express their own grief and their relationship to the deceased very individually. Above all, we also want to remember what made the deceased special.
This trend has been observed for some time. The clown on a grave here is a personification of carnival, the exuberant joy of life. The fact that this clown is standing on a grave shows what importance carnival must have had in the life of the deceased person. Maybe he was a member of a carnival club, a guard or even a carnival performer… Or he was what you would call a bon vivant; he loved to look at life from the bright side, was an optimist and always had the joke on him.
One can imagine many things. I have also seen a young man in a coffin in his carnival uniform, because he met his wife at carnival and carnival was an important part of his life. Therefore, such a figure on a grave is more than just grave decoration, it is also a statement.
Interviewer: What do you think?
Will: Even in obituaries, clowns or even a jester's cap occasionally appear. This then is a sign that loved ones feel the need to make the farewell and the actual burial more personalized. They also want to clearly recognize their deceased in the words and signs at a funeral: Yes, that's exactly how he was! He was a cheerful person! And that is how we want to remember him!
Interviewer: Many mourners remain in a kind of state of shock, especially when death has occurred suddenly. Do they think then at all already so far to provide a funeral with the personal handwriting? Most of the time, it is first about coping with the obvious and about somehow putting such a day behind them..
Will: That is correct. And here we as a church are also very challenged to give assistance with all our offers to accompany mourners, especially since it is one of our core tasks to comfort mourners. For example, with a rite that serves to take the bereaved by the hand, to guide them through this difficult time and to give them support when the deceased is carried to the grave and buried. So that they can cope without him in their lives afterwards and this so-called last road gets a good conclusion.
That's why, by the way, many people who describe themselves as not very religious accept a religious ritual, because in this way the incomprehensible and unspeakable of death is placed in the power of a higher being. In addition, rituals sometimes help more than words. The church funeral service offers here a large treasure of valuable expressive words, but also signs.
Interviewer: Such speaking signs exist, after all, also in our funeral culture…
Will: In cemeteries, we still encounter primarily the classic Christian symbols, such as the cross, praying hands, the ear of corn, the vine, a palm branch, or even the Greek letters alpha and omega for beginning and end.
Unlike grave decorations – I'm thinking of sweetly crouching putti on the gravestone, round angels, butterflies, windmills or clowns – they are a kind of confession of faith. Each of these symbols expresses what the deceased believed in and from which hope he lived. Or his surviving relatives.
Interviewer: But even if you have a clown on your gravestone, you may have been a believer, right??
Will: Of course. One does not have to exclude the other. Compared to the past, our world has become more differentiated and tolerant. The hospice movement, for example, teaches us that even in the last phase of life, things can still be very cheerful, and sometimes there is even a lot of laughter.
Or take the hospital clowns, some of whom even specialize in visiting hospices. After all, clowns aren't just for children. Adults, too, are usually grateful for such impulses that give them distraction or joy in the time they have left, even if they know they will soon have to die.
A hospital clown once told me how difficult it is for him to see these terminally ill people and then try to make them laugh. This task is indeed "border-value", because it plays with borders and transitions. Such a clown, who is specially trained for his job, has a very responsible function.
Interviewer: Carnivalists such as the Cologne triumvirate, who are known to also perform social tasks when regular visits to hospitals and hospices are on their session program, are in a similar role…
Will: This is another good example of the two faces of carnival. Because carnival takes place – correctly understood – not only in large noisy meeting halls, but also in hospital wards, in old people's homes and in many other not always visible encounters between people who are not exclusively well or who are bursting with a high-spirited attitude to life.
Laughing and crying, celebrating and dying – all part of life. The carnival shows us, what is often not even considered, also this serious side. A good image for this is certainly Pierrot from the Comedia dell' arte, whose whitewashed melancholy face is always marked by a black tear… This figure of little Peterle reflects quite well this supposed contradiction between being happy and being sad.
Interviewer: Asked again: high-spirited good mood and sadness – does that go together at all??
Will: Of course, at first glance there is a great ambivalence. But that both can exist side by side is shown most impressively by the children, who are good teachers for us. With them, states of mind can change by the second. Crying and laughing are very close to each other for them. They are deadly sad and cry bitter tears. But then they turn on their heels, forget their tears and run away laughing again at the same moment.
In fact, the simultaneity of both shows the ambivalence of life: in the midst of life we are surrounded by death! We can learn a lot from this childish attitude. That's why Jesus puts a child in the middle and says: "Become like children!"
And who hasn't experienced how hearty the laughter can be after a funeral at the "funeral feast" and how much humor is used to commemorate a deceased person who was always good for a laugh during his lifetime?. Crying and laughing are valves. This shows that it is healing to go all the way through the grief and pain, in order to then sort oneself out again and be able to go on living without the person who has died.
Interviewer: This sounds just like a plea for the necessity of carnival for us Christians…
Will: In carnival we celebrate life exuberantly. But on Ash Wednesday follows with the ash cross also a threshold rite. This cross is a reminder that things don't always go on like this, but that everything comes to an end at some point – not just the carnival, but life in general.
That's why I'm reminded, after all, "Remember, man, that you are dust…" This "memento mori" makes me aware of my own transience every year anew: celebrate life gratefully and exuberantly, but do not forget that your life is limited. So act responsibly! For Christians it means: Act according to the will of God!
Who loves the carnival, has this in view. Without the church year there would be no "fifth season" at all, as we Cologne people say. Carnival and Ash Wednesday – both together only make sense!
The interview was conducted by Beatrice Tomasetti.