A Garden for the Dead

At the risk of seeming morbid, I wanted to return to my favorite place for walks, the Schosshalde Cemetery. On March 30th, I wrote about how most Swiss graves last for only twenty years, before they are filled with another generation’s coffins and urns. But I didn’t tell you how beautifully tended those temporary graves are.

The Schosshaldenfriedhof is set on the side of a hill. At the top of this hill is the grave of painter and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee. The rest of the cemetery spreads out from Klee’s burial place in three directions. To the northeast there’s a small woods where urns have been buried along a narrow path winding among the trees. Paved walkways pass fields of graves placed in typical rows, but there are also little groves with scattered gravestones half-hidden by bushes. Near a pond with benches, there’s even a small outdoor “museum,” where particularly attractive or interesting gravestones from all three of Bern’s cemeteries are displayed. When graves are destroyed every twenty years, their stones are usually ground down to gravel; this exhibit shows a few sample gravestones from each decade since 1878, when the cemetery buried its first coffin.

Grave of Paul Klee and his wife Lily Klee-Stumpf

Since the beautifully tended flowers are what I enjoy most about the graveyard, I was amazed to discover from its director, Simon Zwygart, that only fifty percent of the gravesites are planted and cared for by the cemetery’s gardeners; the rest are the responsibility of family members. Yet I rarely see a grave that looks abandoned. Herr Zwygart explained that when a grave which is supposed to be tended goes too long without care, the family is contacted. If no one shows up to deal with the problem or decides to pay the cemetery to do it, the site will be planted over with grass or an attractive ground cover. “Of course even if someone hasn’t hired us to be responsible for a grave, we still weed, water and trim the plants free of charge,” Herr Zwygart assured me.

If you do contract with the cemetery to have your relative’s gravesite tended, you pay for three plantings: spring, summer and fall, and you can choose from a set of appropriate plants for each season. For $200, the smallest and cheapest option to mark an urn burial, you can select sixteen pansies or English daisies for spring; sixteen begonias, ageratums or gnaphaliums (yellow-topped spikes that we call cudweed) for summer; and, for the fall, heather surrounded by branches of white pine. The most expensive version of this  standard offering is for large family graves; it includes not only many more of the same plants for each season, but also extras like tulips, fuchsias and decorative grasses for a little under $650 a year. You can also arrange to have graves adorned with special plants or regular bouquets of cut flowers.

A row of wall urns in the spring

In between the graves with their selections of seasonal flowers are the cemetery landscapers’ own choices: avenues of trees, groves of flowering shrubs, beautifully tended lawns, cleared paths, attractive (or in some cases I’d have to say, tactfully, “interesting”) statues, and little patches of untamed land set apart to promote biodiversity. I have never seen the hedgehogs, bats, foxes and even occasional deer that I know can be found in the Schosshalde cemetery, but I have heard birdsong. Sometimes I even catch a glimpse of a finch, tit or robin on my regular walks.

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