Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The cemetery at Munich


It is only in later years, and since the passing of the Bill against intermural interments, that the English people have become, in some degree, familiarised with those picturesque and attractive places of burial, which have been at once the solace and the ornament of continental towns, affording not only a resting-place for the departed, and a seemly retreat for sorrowing relatives and friends, but a promenade for the meditative, amidst gardens and alleys, that speak of death, but tell their tale in a soothing spirit. It is only at a compatively late period that we have permitted ourselves, in this country, any sympathy with those gentle and graceful cares, and affecting symbols of lingering attachment, which our continental neighbours have long since been accustomed to bestow upon the last dwelling-place of those they loved or respected in life. These testimonies of love beyond the grave—the carefully tended rose-tree—the garlands of variously-coloured everlastings—the handful of freshly-gathered flowers, flung upon the tomb—the embedded plants, in themselves the poetical symbols of “death in the midst of life” as they fade and die away, but no less emblems of a second life and resurrection, as they spring forth again in verdure and fresh bud after the death of winter,—all these graceful and touching evidences of sorrow seeking to find a soothing vent in garnishing the holy place where the loved one awaits a second life, were long unknown among us. In continental countries these posthumous traits of the poetry of feeling struck us with surprise; and, although they found response in some English hearts, would still as frequently—or perhaps more frequently—elicit the genuine matter-of-fact John Bullish exclamation of “humbug,” as obtrusively and openly displayed excesses of sensibility, which our own manners and habits had never accustomed us to see: and here lay the gravamen. Since the introduction of similar traits of feeling among us, we have taken to them not unkindly. In former days our very localities afforded us no scope for the exercise of such a train of associations. The spirit was impossible to be fostered in the close and choked-up burial-place of the town, o’ertopping in its mass of corruption, gathered for centuries past, the streets that seethed with busy or careless life, and offering only the dismal aspect of blackened grave-headings, for only a brief space white, interspersing flagged monumental tablets, from which all inscription was wont quickly to disappear, as if as glad to be rid of its duty of recording, as the living might have been of the due meed of memory.

These places told of little more than the desire to put away death and decay. The English country churchyard, it is true, has had its tribute of romance from the poet and the novelist; and perhaps there are few of us who have not known some picturesque spot of the kind, the very sight of which commanded us to draw forth sketch-book and pencil, and where there was always some warm and cozy nook on the sunny side, that a weary octogenarian might gaze upon lovingly, with the thought that he might rest there “so comfortably” when all was over. But, in general, like its hideous and dismal town rival, it failed in all the attributes that would have fostered the spirit of adornment, or the feeling of graceful tribute to those who lay beneath the sod. It was but the skirting-ground of the village pathway, along which the hundreds plodded on, without a thought of turning aside to gaze upon the grave of any lost one. It was the playground of the village scamps, who played leap-frog over the grave-stones, and pitch and toss between the mounds; it was the pasture-field of the Vicar’s mare and cows; it was the gossip-shop of Sundays. It was all this: and if it condescended to any romance, admitted so unpractical a feeling only in the matter of that awful ghost “with eyes as big as tea-saucers,” which Giles and Joan had seen one misty night. It had no analogy whatever with the suburban cemeteries of recent construction, and the picturesque and highly-ornamented burial-grounds of continental cities.

Long before suburban cemeteries were known in England, or if known, in rare instances, only looked upon askance, and even with reprobation, as savouring of dissent from the customary forms of the Church, and, consequently, even of impiety, my travelled memory had been filled with pictures of continental burial-grounds, all more or less, to my young eyes, brightened by a varnish of romance. Sometimes the vision that came back upon the mind, spread out before it a scene of long walks, shadowy avenues, bright flower-beds, and clustering shrubberies—all studded with a thousand monuments, varied in architecture, and decked out with all the wealth of a neighbouring capital—here gorgeous trophies, erected to the fame of a country’s heroes—here elaborate works of art—and each, grand or humble, in itself a history. At other times it came in the form of an embowered field, perched in rural loneliness in some secluded nook of a mountain side, or stretching along the margin of a quiet lake, and reflecting white crosses and duskily green cypresses, with ghostly dreaminess, in the waters. But of all these visionary pictures, none rises so distinctly to my mind as that of the “Cemetery at Munich.”

The peculiar circumstances under which I was first induced to visit it, caused it probably to strike more forcibly upon my imagination, and dwell more strongly in my memory, than any similar spot. For the first time in my young existence the contrast between animated, bounding life and sudden death had been rudely forced upon my mind. The spectre had risen, all at once, in the midst of a wreath of thoughtless gaiety. The skull had stared upon me unexpectedly in the midst of the flowers of the festive cup, as at the old Egyptian feasts. One step had hurried a friend, to whom I was sincerely attached, from the ball-room to the grave. With the horror of the shock still crushing me down, with a sorrow that I had not known till then, as a fresh tenant for my heart—it has often dwelt there since, and long—with a new-born terror at my first discovery that “even in life we are in death,” I was taken to the “Cemetery at Munich.” No wonder, then, that this first visit gave a hallowed and melancholy charm to the place, which no time, when I afterwards rambled there, could ever thoroughly wear out.

It came about in this wise. It was the early spring of—no matter now what year; it is a long, long time ago—the Carnival at Munich was drawing to its close. One of the last of a series of brilliant festivities was a grand ball at the palace. Amidst the light-hearted and animated who were revelling in the glittering scene, none seemed to wear a happier smile, or evidence a more lively sense of life’s enjoyment, than my poor friend Baron K——. Young, rich, and handsome, sailing with the full tide of prosperous fortunes, with the first feeling of gratified expectation in his newly-acquired commission in the Guards still fresh upon him, and just affianced to the girl he loved, he seemed born to be Fortune’s favourite; and yet the fiend of evil had already been at work to undermine this brilliant structure of hope and pride. He had been dancing with his pretty bride—an engaged lady receives the title of “bride” in Germany—and as he passed me in the crowd I seized his hand to offer him my congratulations on his happy future.

“Don’t talk to me of the future just now,” he said.

“And why?” I asked.

“I will tell you to-morrow,” was his reply. “Perhaps,” he added, with a strangely melancholy smile, and grasped my hand; and so we parted.

The morrow came. The fineness of the morning tempted me out earlier than usual. All nature was bursting with new life under the first rays of a spring sun. The whole world seemed filled with the brightest hope. The more startling was the contrast in the haggard expression of my friend F——, as he hurriedly crossed me in the English Garden,—pale as death, looking, as I observed with a laugh (sadly repented afterwards), as if he had “committed a murder.” He had seen one committed! My poor friend K—— had been shot that morning in a duel. F—— had been his second. The quarrel had originated in a trifling dispute on a subject equally trivial. The bright, hopeful being of last night’s ball-room was a corpse. It was horrible!

It was with some reluctance that, a few days afterwards, I acceded to a proposal to see the body of my unfortunate friend for the last time. It was laid out, I was told, in a building in the great cemetery, destined, by the law of the land, for the public exposure of the bodies of all persons of every degree until their interment. To me, this revelation of a custom common to most continental nations, but unknown to me until then, was singularly repulsive. I would not accept the thought that the remains of kindred and friends could possibly be exposed to the flippant remarks of careless observers; and I listened with singular unwillingness of conviction to the demonstration that this custom, instituted by “paternal governments” to prevent the possibility of the interment of the living (medical attendants and watchers being constantly employed in the building to observe minutely the state of the dead bodies committed to their charge), and to render vain any attempts to conceal an unnatural death from the eyes of justice, was one of great and notorious service. But curiosity, and perhaps a better feeling, prevailed. I went.

The “Cemetery at Munich” is situated at the extremity of one of the liveliest suburbs of the capital, its great gateway forming the vista of a long avenue of trees, that was in those days the customary promenade of the middling and lower classes on a Sunday. Far off, beyond, on the horizon, rise the rugged forms of the mountains of the Tyrol, breaking hard upon the sky on a clear day, now purple, now bluish grey. There is no mistaking the strait road onwards to the Gottes Acker. There is a poetical charm in the name given by the Orientals to their places of interment, “The City of the Silent.” But, to my mind, there is a simplicity, a touching faith, and even a sublimity, in the German expression, that far surpasses the Eastern poetry. The German cemetery is “God’s ground” (Gottes Acker).—God’s own peculiar and hallowed ground, to which He has recalled those whom He had sent forth upon their worldly mission, as their abiding place, until He shall please to summon them.[1] But the expression of “city” still strikes upon the memory here. It is a city of graves, where broad avenues, streets, and lanes divide and subdivide the dwelling-places of the dead. A main avenue leads up the centre: what may be called a boulevard sweeps, in similar breadth, along the outer walls; the streets and lanes intersect the plots of dwellings as ordinary streets and lanes, but with symmetrical regularity. These passages are nameless, it is true; but each bears at its corner a low numbered post, the especial mark of which is a sufficient direction to the dwelling to which a mourner may be bound. A city it is, once more, in its variety and distribution of building. The noblest monuments stand upon the broadest thoroughfares; the humbler graves are skirted by the narrower lanes. There are gorgeous chapels, sarcophagi, pillared crosses, and pyramids, with a magnificent mausoleum now and then rising in its marble pride above the rest. There are the lowly tumuli, marked by the plain black cross or wooden effigy, daubed with the conventional attributes of the grave. Along the outer boulevard are ranged the most costly monuments—the gorgeous chapels, with their ever-burning lamps—the artistic marbles—the temple and the statue. The great family charnel-houses of nobility increase in consequence and splendour as they approach the termination of each boulevard, and the great stone colonnade that skirts the entire upper end. In this it is again a city, where fashion has its favourite quarters, and wealth purchases rank and precedence even in the pride of death. Strikingly beautiful as are many of the specimens of monumental architecture in these “West-End” districts, the more hidden portions of the city may still lay claim to precedence in “the picturesque,” with their painted crosses and quaintly picked-out epitaphs. One attribute the last dwelling-places all have in common. Around all are gardens, greater or smaller—now filled with shrubberies, now only affording room for a few tiny plants. Everywhere hang the chaplets, woven of yellow, white, and green—everywhere lie scattered flowers, recently strewn—now fresh, now withered. Another peculiarity is as frequently to be found by the side of the humbler grave as on the splendid monument. Little miniatures of the deceased who lie below, are let into a frame, overhanging the sculptured or painted epitaphs—poor memorials indeed, sometimes, and rude remembrancers of a living face. But in this again, as in all “city” life, the wealthy have their privilege. Little windows, to be unlocked alone by private key, preserve the glazed portraits for them. Among some of the more lowly a wire grating affords a partial protection against the destructive ravages of weather upon these remembrancers; but in most the colours disappear, the features decay, and the feeble outline that remains, bears only the same ghastly resemblance to a pictured face that a skeleton does to a living body. On the portrait above the same process of decay is going on, as on the body of the once living original that rests below. Scope enough here for the moraliser!

It was with that ’bated breath” with which we converse in the sick man’s chamber, that I felt myself speaking, on first entering the “Cemetery at Munich,” as if fearful of disturbing those who slept that sleep which one sound alone shall disturb. A bell was tolling heavily as I passed the gates, from the further end of the ground. A slow and dreary procession was advancing down the middle avenue. A monotonous chant came with the tolling of the bell, along the air; and rows of burning torches sent up gusts of smoke, with flame invisible, into the bright sun-lit air. A funeral ceremony was just taking place. The crowd around the mourners and the priests was thick. Presently the procession turned slowly down an intersecting street; and the main avenue was once more clear. All was soon comparatively still. The sound of distant muttering alone was heard. Here and there, on advancing up the main street of tombs, a form might be seen kneeling on a grave, in prayer, or busied, with a basket, replacing faded flowers with fresh offerings, or watering the first roots of vegetation planted on a fresh-turned sod. Most of the visitors had been attracted by the funeral ceremony.

At the end of the ground was the long low building, already alluded to as the depository of the dead before interment. It extended with a curve to meet the upper colonnade, on either side. Several windows, and large glass doors in the centre, gave a view into various compartments within. The corpses—each on its bier—were numerous. All were decorated in life’s finest clothes, and generally strewn with flowers—the humbler, as the wealthier, in their best! A beautiful young girl, dressed in white satin, slept beneath a bower of roses. Children were there, with chaplets of white roses on their heads. A government official was arrayed in uniform, with all his orders on his breast. Aged females were decked out with gaudy caps, false curls upon their heads, and rouge upon their yellow waxen cheeks—an appalling mockery of life—a fantastic coquetry, hideous to see, even in the arms of death. Such was a constant custom, I was told. No one shuddered at it but the novice. There, too, lay my unfortunate friend, arrayed in his gay uniform of the Guards. Unchanged, but pallid, he looked the sculptured effigy of him I had known in life. It was all too much to look on with composure.

The city of tombs has its great holiday, like other cities. On “All Souls’ Day,” all Munich that has a friend or relative to mourn, flocks to the great Festival of the Dead, to adorn a tomb. On that day, amidst the thick mass of the unmeaning faces of the many of both sexes, and of every age, groups of interest now and then cross the visitor’s path. Here, a family of orphans, seeking, hand in hand, their parents’ grave—there, a widowed husband, bending his children’s knees to pray by the monument erected to his wife—now, a lover hanging a garland above the lost beloved—now, an aged mother, prostrate and weeping for her son. On one side may be heard the prayer—in some lone corner the stifled sob; and, above all these sounds breaks, now and then, a burst of laughter. For is not this the Festival of Death? The “Cemetery of Munich” is the fashionable promenade of the day. The vanity, that comes to see and be seen, jostles the shrinking sorrow. The tear of regret meets the stare of intrusive curiosity; and the heavy heart is wrung by the smile of thoughtless daily congratulation. It is not on its high festival that the cemetery city wears its most favourable, although its most striking and stirring, aspect. There is one scene, however, connected with the day, which has a festive, and, at the same time, imposing colouring. Around one monument, reared high in sculptured marble above all others, the greatest crowd is collected. The monument is decorated from summit to foot with innumerable banners, garlands, and laurel boughs. Bearded sentinels guard it on every side. It is the monument of the Bavarian patriotic host that fell at Sendling. Most of the surrounding crowd press near to fling a chaplet, or a flower. But those who would see the great “Cemetery at Munich,” should visit it under its ordinary aspect, to feel the true impression it cannot but convey to the observing traveller. P.

  1. Frieden Hof, “Court of Peace,” is another of the German designations for a cemetery.