The Movement of Cemeteries in Early Modern Germany

KFG core group member and junior fellow Martin Christ will present a paper entitled “Moving Religion out of the City? Extra-urban Cemeteries in Germany, 1490 – 1880” at the colloquium series of the Max-Weber-Centre. The paper considers why and how cemeteries were moved from inside the city walls to extramural spaces in the early modern period.

Understood as a space for religious rituals, saturated with religious iconography and meaning and full of biblical symbolism, burial spaces formed a ‘hot spot’ of religion. In the sixteenth century and even more so in the eighteenth century, the movement of cemeteries changed the way a town looked and functioned. European comparisons, for example with the British Isles, show a different kind of reasoning behind the movement of cemeteries in different territories and indicate that religion was only a key factor for the movement of cemeteries, if combined with other features. Arguably, the movement of cemeteries was a key process in the development of cities, as it created more secular spaces and pusheed religion to the margins of towns. By the nineteenth century, almost all towns had seen at least one movement of a main cemetery. But whether this really meant that religion became less important in cities, is not a given.

Caspar David Friedrich, Kügelgens Grab (1821/22) (Picture in public domain)

The paper proposes five themes connected to the wide-spread movement of cemeteries in the early modern period:

1 The movement of cemeteries has to be seen in a longue durée perspective, across centuries. In this way, it is possible, to trace, for example, how hygiene discourses revolving around the plague in the fifteenth century were different from the discourses on public health during the eighteenth century, both of which led to the movement of cemeteries, but in very different contexts. This kind of comparison has so far only been undertaken superficially, with most studies focusing either on the impact of the Reformation on cemeteries, or the later movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The complex interplay between the reasons for the movement of the cemeteries needs further assessment: urban hygiene, the increasing number of people and religious changes such as the Reformation or the move away from mono-confessional burial spaces all influenced the changes in sepulchral culture, but how they interacted with each other has received little scholarly attention.

2. In this way, it will also be possible to assess if there were really ‘waves’ of cemetery movements, as it will be possible to quantify when and how many cemeteries changed their location. By analyzing the movement of cemeteries over a longer period and assessing changes and continuities, discourses on secularization and urban/non-urban dynamics can be placed in a broader context. It might be possible to add some more nuance to the current assessment that eighteenth century cemeteries were less urban, indicating that religion disappeared from the city and leading to some kind of secular and capitalist modernity.

3. Broader comparisons with other European countries are particularly useful in this instance. One of the most fascinating aspects of studying death and sepulchral culture is that every society had to engage with this topic, yielding the opportunity to compare approaches in different regions. As the example of the Reformation illustrates, this can lead to telling results: arguing that the Reformation changed the positioning of the dead is not true everywhere, as the movement of cemeteries in the sixteenth century was much more pronounced in German-speaking areas than it was elsewhere. In a similar way, continuities and similarities across European regions become apparent: the wave of edicts linking Joseph II., Fredrick the Great, Napoleon and Catherine the Great, all of whom ordered the movement of cemeteries, are just one indication of the ways in which a comparative view can broaden our understanding of this topic. Indeed, the reassessment of death goes even further: Kolkatta’s South Park Street Cemetery was one of India’s first garden cemeteries, imposed by the British as a way of alleviating the problems of space in central cemeteries in the town.

South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (See here for copyright details).

4. Methodologically, it might be possible to receive new insights by using tools developed by other disciplines, especially archaeologists. Although increasingly more important, modern archaeology is still not as prominent as classical archaeology. In the case of the movement of cemeteries, it might be possible to identify more clearly what changed not only in the positioning of the cemeteries, when they moved from inside the town, but also aspects such as grave goods or other, similar changes, which might have been connected to urbanity and religion. 

5. Finally, urban deathscapes have to be connected to other ways of commemoration and cannot be detached from other urban aspects. Royal burials and crypts for high-ranking officials, many of which stayed in town centres and were not moved are an indication of this. If we just focus on the cemeteries, we may come to the conclusion that death became less important in the early modern period, but if we look at These sites alongside ducal and royal burials, we see that, at least on this level, death remained omnipresent in urban environments.

As the paper is work in progress, these issues are understood as points of discussion and readers of this blog are also welcome to comment and raise questions through the comment function!

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.


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1 Response

  1. Susanne Rau says:

    Thanks, Martin, for these insights.
    Père Lachaise is, of course, also a nice garden cemetery. 🙂
    And, concerning India, I recently visited the Dutch cemetery of Fort Kochi, built in the early 18th century. More on that: Martin Krieger: European cemeteries in South India (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries), New Delhi 2013.

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