Cemeteries of the World

There has been a lot of discussion of the various mail lists lately about the
sorry condition of so many of the cemeteries and who is responsible for their
upkeep and I want to put in my two cents worth.  Perhaps this is a little far
out, but I would like to share my travel experiences with everyone in
relation to other cultures and their dead.  I also think the American
genealogist relies very heavily on tombstones and it is necessary to
understand that the rest of the world relies on written records in churches,
town halls, verbal etc.  In Czechoslovakia in the 1800's even if you moved
upstairs from downstairs you had to notify the city.  One family on my
husband's side has lived in the same house for over 300 years.  In Germany
you also have to notify the village when you move in and when you move out.
Helpful records if you can read the language.

I have been very fortunate these past 19 years to travel a lot of the world.
My husband goes on business and I tag along whenever possible and sight see.
I am very interested in the people and their customs so I see more than the
scenery although I do do the scenery bit also.  I love the old churches,
buildings, museums, etc.  The size of these buildings are outstanding.  None
of my cameras are capable of taking the whole building even though I use a
wide angle lens.  I am astounded at how many poor serfs must have died
building the tall churches in Europe and all built without a crane.

No, I am not macabre but with the hobby of genealogy I have found the burial
customs very interesting.  Actually I think they probably need to be part of
the knowledge each genealogist should know and not be in the dark like I was
on my first trip to Europe.  If you know the customs of the people, you will
definitely be better prepared on how to go about your research.

You have to understand that I have no fear of cemeteries nor have I ever had.
 In the small towns you visit them often and never forget your ancestors on
Memorial Day.  In the city I see people going on Memorial Day, but it isn't a
day set aside for everyone to visit like it was when I grew up.  There was
always a parade to the cemetery, led by the veterans and then prayer services
at the cemetery.  My mother, age 82, probably has put flowers of 3/4 of the
graves every year for the past 40 years and she is still doing it. Her mother
did it before her and now her local grandchildren help her make the several
trips to the cemetery with the peonies and iris bouquets she has fixed.  She
has the largest garden in town at least over 150 peony plants and more than
that in Iris, not counting all the other flowers.   Each grave would get at
least 2 flowers.  This was because we knew many of the families were too far
away or some just had no descendants anymore to remember them.   Of course a
great many were distant relatives also.

When I first started this obsession called genealogy (one of love but an
obsession anyway), I used to visit many cemeteries.  I used to plan our
vacations to travel through cities that I knew had cemeteries that I needed
information from.  I would give the children the list of names I needed and
then we would fan out and they would yell when they found one.  Is a family
joke now?  We even ate lunch in a cemetery at one place in North Dakota where
they had furnished picnic tables.  Perhaps it was the only place that had a
shade tree.  It is too bad that the new cemeteries are using flat stones as
it makes for a much harder job doing the research and then it allows room for
less and less information on the deceased.

I have always had a fascination with the topic as well as medieval history.
A large paper on medieval torture in high school convinced me that man could
really be cruel to each other.  Visited of the largest torture and criminal
justice museums in the world and it is located in a former Nunnery in
Rottenberg, Germany.  The displays there really make you cringe.  Those
tortures would sure deter a lot of individuals' activities today.  Now I am a
softy and can't even kill a bug, just so you don't get the wrong idea about

I want to start with Germany as I am very impressed with their cemeteries.  A
little history first.  When you buy a plot in Germany you buy it only for a
certain amount of years 10, 15, 20, 30 or whatever.  If you do not renew your
lot fee they come and dig you up and remove the stone.  Others have E-mailed
me and said that they will keep the plot for the family as long as someone
keeps tending the grave site.  Perhaps it is different in different sizes of
towns.  All the plots are surrounded with a cement curb.  When the time is
up, the curb is removed, the stone leaned up against a wall or tree and the
plot is sold again.  You must understand that in Germany and I think most
European countries they do not embalm.  Many cultures consider it barbaric
and besides, especially in Germany it would not be environmentally friendly
as putting chemicals in the soil.  Bodies are wrapped in white shrouds, put
in pine boxes and buried very soon with a service that takes place in a
chapel that is in the cemetery itself.  They do not have church funerals.

These cemetery plots are beautiful.  They are very well taken care of by the
family.  At any time you visit you will find men and woman (and I mean even
when it is misting and cold) out taking care of their plot.  They weed, water
and replace flowers with new ones (artificial sometimes in bad weather, but
they prefer living flowers) when they die.  It is like an extension of their
home gardens.  A fellow lister who lived in Germany for years said that the
gardening is considered a mark of respect for the deceased and a way of
showing their continuing love and an important part of the mourning process.

Each cemetery has a water spigot, watering cans, hoes, rakes, etc in
strategic spots for the use of the families.  There seems to always be a
caretaker on location doing his part and always so willing to help.  This
last trip, one took his tractor and led us to the town hall where we got a
lesson in the history of the city and a book on the town, which mentioned my
Becker family being there from Roman times.  Of course, having my German
speaking daughter along helped this connection.

The thing I didn't understand this last trip is that when I was there I saw
more and more of the most beautiful and large black marble stones all fancily
cut and affixed with Gold lettering.  All this for a few years?  The same
fellow lister said that the stones are not thrown out but are given back to
the family to do with them as they see fit.  She said that some end up in the
barn or in their yard and had even seen some made into coffee tables.  You
have to understand the German people for this.  They are a very practical,
industrious and thrifty people and nothing goes to waste.  Stones can be
recycled.  Another lister said that they sometimes sheer off the face and its
information and then carve new information into the stone for the next person
to die in the family.

On my first trip to Germany many years ago I was so excited and the woman
helping me find the cemetery couldn't understand why I was insistent that I
find this cemetery.  I had visions of finding several hundred years of
tombstones and all this after years of just trying to find the correct city.
I almost had a heart attack when I found they were turned over periodically.
Fortunately for me I did find one stone in the cemetery with the name Becker
and they had used all four sides, one for each succeeding generation.  I
visited the last living Becker in the village and showed my
great-grandfathers picture.  He hurried to his room and brought out a picture
of his father - a spitting image of my picture.  We were descended from the
same John Becker from the early 1800s.  How I wish we shared the same
language as had to go through an interpreter.  I know the turnover reason is
because of lack of space but what a disappointment for me.

I have been asked when the rental time begins.  I suppose when the plot is
purchased.  As the other lister said, perhaps it depends on the village.

Since I have traveled in several countries, I will give you my impression of
them.  Ireland was beautiful and the people were wonderful, but I have very
seldom ran into a person I didn't like on my travels.  We visited some very
old cemeteries with stones from the 1500's that you could barely read.  There
were a few stones standing from before the year 1000 that used markings
instead of words.  Other cemeteries had been turned over and today they are
burying people 6 to 10 deep, depending on the area and the equipment
available.  One lister wrote and told of a church in Dublin where Priests and
Nuns were laid in crypts in the open air.  They air was so dry and they have
just turned into a leathery looking bodies.  I didn't see this but is

Never visited a cemetery in England, but imagine the same.  We drove by
several and saw lots of old stones so probably depends on the area. I have
visited Westminster Abbey in London.  There are many people buried in the
floor of the abbey, including Sir Laurence Olivier.  The slabs are marked off
and they have rings where you can open the crypts (not the general public).
Henry VIII is also buried in a floor crypt.  In Madrid, you find the same
thing in the big cathedral.  In small towns around the world, where they have
dug up a cemetery or perhaps the stones fell over, they many times take the
oldest stones and either lean them outside against the sides of the church or
even hang them on the walls inside the church.

I visited the town and farm my great-grandfather came from in Scotland but
didn't bother trying to find the cemetery as knew it had been turned over 30
or 40 years ago.  In these situations, they go into an old cemetery and
remove everybody and start over.  Not as organized as the German way.

In Rome we took a tour of the Catacombs.  After not seeing a single bone, I
asked the tour guide (we were the only ones on that tour) what happened to
the bones.  This was my answer.  Many of the grave sites were robbed, but
they used to take people on tours of the whole facility but too many people
fainted so they stopped.  Needless to say, I got the old tour.  The Catacombs
are lots of tunnels with spaces dug out in the walls that they buried the
people in.  I don't know if they were sealed in or not, but maybe not as dry.
 There were also small chapel areas cut out down there for the services as
were hiding from the Romans.

Paris is a beautiful city thanks mostly to Napoleon.  When he redesigned and
built the new Paris he had to dig up many old cemeteries.  At least he didn't
build over them.  The bones were removed from the cemeteries and kept all
together.  They then were put in archway sections of the Catacombs of Paris.
Each cemetery has its own section and is labeled as to cemetery, dates of
use, etc.

The last time I was in Paris, I decided to tour these Catacombs.  My husband
was in meetings all day so I went to the entrance, stood in line (yes it is a
big tourist attraction) paid my money and went into the underground world of
Paris. (They also have a tour of the sewers of Paris, which I will do next
time.)  I was expecting a few minutes and out.  Well, three hours later I
finally came up far away from my entrance.  Where I had been I haven't a
clue.  These Catacombs run for miles under the city.  Many of the tunnels are
blocked off.  Thank God as without a path to follow you would never come out.
 Was strange to see all the piles of bones of the various cemeteries.  During
World War Ii, the French Resistance used the Catacombs for their headquarters
with no problems.  The Germans and others were afraid to go down there in the
dark with all the bones (So the French say).

In Prague we visited a very old Jewish cemetery.  Here they also were buying
one on top of the other.  What was interesting is that when they dug for the
next person, they remove the current headstone, bury the new person, put the
old headstone back on and add a new headstone?  Some of the graves had 7 or 9
headstones.  I believe Judaism doesn't allow cremation and I have been told
you also have to have the whole body.

The Czech Republic cemeteries look very much like the German ones.  A lot of
crossover in people through the years.  The main difference I saw was the
large amount of cemeteries that had pictures of the deceased on the
tombstone.  This is a nice touch.  I have seen this in Czechoslovakian
cemeteries in the United States also.  Most of the graves were also covered
with a large granite slab.  Sitting on this slab might be several other
members of the family in cement urns - again complete with picture.  Very
well cared for again.

After much discussion with a Bohemian college of my husband, who at first
didn't believe Koskan to be a Bohemian name, he decided to take a day and
drive us out to visit the old home town.  Can you imagine a village that had
9 houses in the 1870s and still has 9 houses - all of them occupied.  They
are very gloomy on the outside, but we are told they are very beautiful on
the inside, but was a way of protecting themselves from the Communists
Regime.  The people were great and talk about pride in their country.  They
are putting their things back together as fast as they can find the money.
All since they are not under Russian control anymore.  Anyway we found the
small cemetery and one newer slab for the Kostkans and one very old stone
that was for the Family Koskan.  Of course, we are the older.  Was for many
members of the family named Koskan.  No dates or names - probably not enough
money.  These two spellings are the same family, but after the Reformation
one part remained Catholic and the other became Calvinist.  We are descended
from the Calvinist group but all related.

Now I will tell about the bone churches.  If you have a weak stomach you had
better stop reading.  There are two in the Czech Republic and one in Italy
that I know about but may be more.  Two or three hundred years ago they dug
up the cemetery to make room for new bodies and they put all the bones in the
crypt (basement) of the church.  Some kind soul (a living person) decided to
decorate the crypt with the bones.  He made all sorts of items used in a
Catholic service as well as the altar, the chandelier, etc all of human
bones.  The Monstrance was made using every single bone of the human body.
The extra bones are piled, as in the Catacombs of Paris, in archways where
they take the large leg bones and pile them like you would pile logs.  On top
of the leg bones they place all the skulls, facing you, of course.  The other
unused bones are put in the space behind the front structure.  These are very
weird but fascinating in a way.  I surely wouldn't do it.  No pictures
allowed, but of course you could buy some and I did.  Just couldn't believe

In reference to the woman who told about the bodies in Dublin, I must relate
my first experience years ago when I encountered glass coffins in a church.
Couldn't remember which one, but went back when my daughter was studying in
Germany and we found it.  Is in Ottoburen, Germany, south of Ulm.  It is a
Benedictine Monastery.  These are Saints dressed in their finest at the time.
 They are reclining in the glass coffins on their sides, using one hand and
arm to prop up their heads.  The clothes are in various stages of tatter, but
the bones and the jewelry remain.  There are four of them in front of various
altars at the front of the church.  Very strange.  The Benedictine
Monasteries are mostly Baroque and thus plain on the outside but absolutely
gorgeous on the inside.  A picture will never do them justice.  The Gothic,
churches such as Ulm Cathedral and Notre Dame in Paris, are all fancy in the
stone work on the outside and very plain inside.

As you know the Orient has a huge population problem and woman are not
allowed in many countries to choose the number of children or even the sex in
some areas. I didn't get into burial practices in China other than the
Emperors - huge language problem there with me not speaking Chinese.  In
Japan we visited a beautiful garden that included a large section kept
especially as a shrine for the very young.  There must have been 5 to 6
hundred 10-15 inch high dolls placed there.  Each doll represented a dead
baby, either from abortion or still birth.  The numbers were overwhelming and
then we were told they only stay one month and are replaced by new dolls.
This was only for this area of Japan.  How sad, but their way of remembering
their lost wee ones.  The loss of a baby is very hard on a woman, no matter
what many people try to tell you.  (I don't speak Japanese either but they
have been catering to tourist longer and have written brooches in English.)

Many other cultures do very different things.  Some Indian Tribes built pyres
and burned their dead.  Another Indian Tribe built high platforms and left
the loved one to nature.  Some cultures left food and tools for the trip to
the Gods.  The Eskimo, when knowing they outlived their usefulness to the
community, walked off into the wilderness to die alone.

I want to add a few comments on American cemeteries.  I love the old
cemeteries of the past and as said above I lament the new way of flat
markers, names and years only.  When in college years ago, I visited the old
cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas.  Many of Quantrail's Raid's victims are buried
there.  So many of the tombstones had poems on them, not just scripture.  I
am sure you all know of the "Remember friends as you pass by, as you are,
once was I.  As I am, you must be, Prepare for death to follow me" Still
remember this 30 years later.  I want to share a trend started in my home
area several years ago.  Many of the older generation - my parents age - have
designed and had put in place their tombstones.  Is like a page out of a book
looking at them.  Some examples of pictures and information on the tombstones
include oil wells, a teachers desk, a whole farm yard, wheat fields,
tractors.  You see what the person wants to be remembered for or their
occupation.  Several had had their stones recut or added new items after
seeing what has been done.  You send in a sketch of what you want and they
have an artist work up a rough draft for your approval.  Not very expensive
out there, but would probably be very high in the cities.

I will describe my parents tombstone.  My father has been dead 11 years and
he is probably laughing at us as always said we knew more about the dead then
the living.  Any way, on the front of the stone on my Fathers side is a shaft
of wheat, on mothers an iris.  Their whole name, the whole date of birth and
death, their marriage date and the name of their parents including the maiden
name of each's mother.  On the back behind my mother is a large genealogy
tree with us children's names and dates of birth.  On my fathers side is an
etching of him sitting on a wheat drill, which he had a patent on 25 years
ago and which my family is still using.  Wouldn't you love to find this
tombstone?  Is black granite and is beautiful. It sounds crowded, but it
looks nice.  I like this idea of doing your own as so many people any more
don't seem to get around to fixing a stone for their loved one.

Hope the sad items and the strangeness of the topic doesn't bother you.
Travel is fun and like one of our fellow listers said, it is through the
customs of the people and meeting those of other countries that we can
perhaps make this a more peaceful world.  I have found that wherever I go,
people have the same wants for their families.  Their customs are different,
but each wants what is best for their children and none want war or killing.
The drive for power causes such disorder in life.  We hosted exchange
students for 15 years and what a blessing.  They keep in touch to this day
and many have been back to visit and we visit many in their own homes.  How
can you go to war when you have friends in the country you are supposed to be
shooting at?

OK back to chasing the elusive ancestor.  Hope you enjoyed the dissertation
and I am now ready to take on more court houses.