I have a photograph of my mother from 1968. She is standing alone, next to a freshly carved gravestone in the Friedhof (cemetery) off Plöner Straße in Eutin, Germany. She is wearing a stylish and likely hand-sewn blue pencil skirt and sailor’s top. At her feet, a few spring begonias had been recently tucked into the earth. This is her second visit to Eutin since the time that she left twenty years earlier when she was a little girl of eleven years, whisked away in a car two days after her mother’s death and two days before the burial.
On her first visit to the cemetery in the fall of 1967, Monica had set her eyes on this plot for the very first time. Unmarked for twenty years, she had come back to make things right, to acknowledge the piece of earth that held tightly to her mother’s bones. In the spring of 1968 she visited once more to witness the installation of the stone which was at her mother’s grave when the picture was snapped.
After a twenty year separation it was a reunion of mother and daughter, I suppose.
This past summer, 64 years since my grandmother Maria Kröker became a permanent resident of the cemetery and 45 years after my mother’s visit, I found myself in Eutin. I felt fortunate to have found the town and the cemetery, since my mother wasn’t exactly generous when it came to details and information. I had to do a little digging around. My mother had always intended to take her two girls back to Eutin and the cemetery, but money and good health, two items that were scarce for her, prevented that trip from materializing before she died twenty years ago in 1994.
One of the reasons that I flew across the ocean to Germany was to visit the cemetery. I also wanted to say ‘Hello’ to Maria Kröker, my grandmother.
Since embarking on my journey, one thing that I have learned about Germans with regard to cemeteries is that they are not exactly ceremonious or sentimental about them. In fact, I have learned that the plots are only leased, not purchased as is the custom in North America.
That’s right. Leased.
When I visited the cemetery office to inquire about the location of my grandmother’s grave, I discovered that the plots are leased for about 25 years. I did the math. 45 years had passed since my mother had the stone installed. And there hadn’t been a visitor since.
Now I had some serious questions.
“So, if the plot is leased, and the lease has expired, what happens to it?” I inquired.
“Oh, we just use for next person!” The cemetery lady said a little too joyfully.
“Okay … that makes sense – because it’s a lease. Right. Hmmm. So, if you use it for the next person, you have to dig in the ground to, ah, put the new body in?”
“Ja, that is correct.“
“Right … so, you use a shovel?”
“Ja. The workers use shovel to dig the earth.”
“Um … do you ever hit any bones?”
“Oh ja … but it is no worry. We hit bones, we put it back.“
“I see. If you hit a bone, you just sort of place the bone back into the ground. That’s good, I think.”
I had to get over this gruesome detail quickly and move onto other pressing questions.
I continued. “My mother had a stone installed at my grandmother’s grave in 1968. What do you do with the stone once the lease has expired and it’s not renewed?”
“You mean, what do we do with gravestone? Oh, well, how do you say? The stones are … rubbish.“
“Rubbish? Like garbage?“
“Oh no! Not garbage. We use here. We cut up into small pieces and use to pave path and other things.” She looked pleased.
“I see. You wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good stone.” Germans are so very practical.
And that was that. I eventually managed to find the approximate site of the plot where my grandmother’s bones were buried by comparing the photo in 1968 to the current surroundings. It was now an empty patch of grass, cleared it’s past. No new stone. No mixed bones. Thank goodness.
Without a stone or marker to commemorate the occasion, it was difficult to find a suitable way to complete my visit. In my mind I had pictured placing fresh flowers at the base of the stone, a few whispered words floating into the air, sitting at the foot of the plot for a while with thoughts of the grandmother that I never knew drifting through my mind like the far-off clouds. Without the stone none of these ideas worked. And so, a little unfulfilled, I began my walk out of the cemetery as the sun was worked it’s way west.
Strolling lazily about, taking the long way out of the the grounds under the canopy of linden trees, I happened on a large yard which appeared to store supplies for the landscaper. It had large piles of things, heaped around. Mulch. Grass clippings. Little stones. Bigger stones. Deep at the back of the yard I could see a burgeoning pile of finished rock that looked a whole lot like gravestones.
“Verboten” said the metal sign at the entrance to the yard. A heavy chain slung between two wooden posts sent a strong message meant to keep intruders out.
I climbed over the sign and the chain into the forbidden yard.
Heading straight toward the pile at the back, I was drawn in. It was as though I was walking overtop of other peoples lives. It felt eerie to climb onto the pile of stones. Names and dates were seldom visible as the stones had been turned face down in a feeble attempt to protect those long-forgotten lives. Seeds, vines, leaves and copper pine needles had blown into the the angular spaces between the smooth-cut edges.
Cresting the top, I surveyed the pile and once again my imagination got ahead of me, playing a picture before my eyes. My internal movie ended in the too-good-to-be-true discovery of my grandmother’s stone and the ensuing beautiful restoration of it at the site of her grave. Fresh flowers, too.
But that’s not how the story went.
The stones were unbearably heavy. I tried moving one. Just out of curiosity, I tugged at a corner with both my hands. Not even a budge. No surprise, but I had to at least try, right? Having come this far, from Canada to Eutin, to the cemetery and then happening upon the pile of so-called “rubbish”. I had to take it to the last step, to know that I had given my all.
Feeling defeated, I stepped down from the pile, crossed through the yard and back over the “Verboten” sign. In my obsessive search for the stone, I had entirely forgotten to keep my eye out for the landscaper!
On my way out, I noticed a stone carved with the names “Rosa” and “Helene” which had a bright green sticker stuck to it’s face. It said “Nutzungsrecht abgelaufen. Bitte in der Friedhofsverwaltung vorsprechen.”. Translated the sticker said “Lease is expired. Talk to cemetery management”.
How could it be that nobody in the world remembered these women?
15 years ago, my grandmother’s stone would also have had a bright green sticker stuck to it. Compassion filling me, I felt compelled to talk to the cemetery management on behalf of Rosa and Helene , Geschwistern Kirche, (Sisters of the Church) to ensure the plot would be renewed.
A few days later, I returned on my bicycle. In my bag I had packed a picnic. Cheese, sliced sausage, chocolate and fresh cherries, all collected at the Saturday morning market. I shook out the blanket and laid my feast on top of my grandmother’s approximate grave site. This felt right somehow.
Cherries were eaten and the pits spit out into the grass surrounding, in vain hope of some future miracle tree. Pine cones were collected and placed in a pyramid where I imagined the stone to be. Branches of fir and cedar were snapped off and smuggled back to Canada, pressed between many papers and notes. I imagined that those tree branches, planted so close to my grandmother, had somehow taken her body up in through their roots and out into their needles and leaves. Taking pieces of them was like taking a piece of her back with me.
Those pine cones, cedar and fir branches cleared security at the airport and, eventually, I placed all of it at my Mother’s grave in Vineland on a cloudy day. This also seemed right to me.
Another reunion of mother and daughter, I suppose.