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CULTURE

How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Traditionally a very religious country, Germany is rethinking its way of death. One start-up is even claiming to have found a way of prolonging life - digitally at least - beyond the grave.

Foliage lies over graves at Trier's main cemetery on November 1st 2021 (All Saints' Day).
Foliage lies over graves at Trier's main cemetery on November 1st 2021 (All Saints' Day). Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Harald Tittel

Youlo – a cheery contraction of “You Only Live Once” – allows people to record personal messages and videos for their loved ones, which are then secured for several years in a “digital tombstone”.

Unveiled at “Life And Death 2022” funeral fair in the northern city of Bremen this month, its creators claim it allows users to have their final word before they slip gently into the good night.

Traditionally, Lutheran northern Germany has long had a rather stiff and stern approach to death.

But as religion and ritual loosened their hold, the crowds at the fair show people are looking for alternative ways of marking their end – a trend some say has been helped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“With globalisation, more and more people live their lives far from where they were born,” said Corinna During, the woman behind Youlo.

When you live hundreds of kilometres from relatives, visiting a memorial can “demand a huge amount of effort”, she said.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has only “increased the necessity” to address the problem, she insisted.

READ ALSO: What to do when a foreigner dies in Germany

No longer taboo

During lockdowns, many families could only attend funerals by video link, while the existential threat coronavirus posed – some 136,000 people died in Germany – also seems to have challenged longtime taboos about death.

All this has been helped by the success of the German-made Netflix series “The Last Word” – a mould-breaking “dramedy” hailed for walking the fine line between comedy and tragedy when it comes to death and bereavement.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Much like British comedian Ricky Gervais’ hit series “After Life”, which turns on a husband grieving the loss of his wife, the heroine of “The Last Word” embraces death and becomes a eulogist at funerals as her way of coping with the sudden death of her husband.

“Death shouldn’t be a taboo or shocking; we shouldn’t be taken unawares by it, and we certainly shouldn’t talk about it in veiled terms,” Bianca Hauda, the presenter of the popular podcast “Buried, Hauda”, told AFP.

It aims to “help people be less afraid and accept death,” she said.

“The coronavirus crisis will almost certainly leave a trace” on how Germans view death, said sociologist Frank Thieme, author of “Dying and Death in Germany”. He argued that there has been a change in the culture around death for “the last 20 to 25 years”.

These days, there are classes to teach you how to make your own coffin and even people who make a living writing personalised funeral speeches. Digital technology which was “barely acceptable not so long ago” was also beginning to make its mark, he said.

‘Straitjacket’

Historian Norbert Fischer of Hamburg University said they have been a shift toward individualism in the “culture of burials and grief since the beginning of the 21st century.

“The traditional social institutions of family, neighbourhood and church are losing their importance faced with a funeral culture marked by a much greater freedom of choice,” he said.

However, the change has been slower in Germany because “legal rules around funerals are much stricter than most other European countries,” said sociologist Thorsten Benkel, which is at odds with “what individuals aspire to”.

Some political parties like the Greens also want to loosen this legislative “straitjacket”, particularly the law known as the “Friedhofszwang”.

The 200-year-old rule bans coffins and urns being buried anywhere, but in a cemetery. Originally passed to prevent outbreaks of disease, it has been largely surpassed as a public health measure, particularly since cremation became popular.

Germany also had a very particular relationship with death in the aftermath of World War II.

Back in 1967, the celebrated psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich put Germany on the couch with their book “The Inability to Mourn”.

One of the most influential of the post-war era, the book argued that Germans had collectively swept the horrors committed by the Nazis in their name — and their own huge losses and suffering during the war –under the carpet.

Thankfully, said Benkel, mentalities have “changed an awful lot since”.

By David COURBET

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OPINION & ANALYISIS

What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”

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