Grave thoughts indeed

To take a stroll through the Alter Südfriedhof cemetery in Munich is to revisit its history. Pestilence and death, war, aristocratic scandals — even the Oktoberfest are all written into the epitaphs of people who shaped the city. It feels like the who’s who of Bavaria are all buried in this one spot (though by no means all of them are). In this four-part series — yes, four — I will reveal some of the most intriguing stories behind the stones. The history of the cemetery, as you will see, reflects the history of both the city and society at large.

Part 1 — Pestilence and death

A cemetery might seem like an odd place to take a stroll, but the Alter Südfriedhof in Munich is no ordinary cemetery. Its title translates as “old south cemetery” and was founded in 1563 when the cemeteries inside the city filled up from the epidemics that regularly raged here. Now closed for business but open to visitors, it is more of an open-air museum whose tombstones range from grandiose monuments of red marble and granite crowned with angels, to stubby, rain-worn stone stumps washed bare of any indication of their owner. The old-growth trees towering above lend the cemetery the aura of a park. A park with lots of dead bodies in the ground, but a park nonetheless.

All restaurants and cafés in Germany have been closed for months. On this unseasonably balmy February day, the benches and paths are full of people having lunch or just enjoying the opportunity to meet up under lockdown. I pass a teacher pulling a giant wagon full of toddlers from the preschool located just outside the grounds. Red and gray squirrels zigzag across the path and scamper up and down tombstones, digging up nuts from the ground between. High above in a tree, a woodpecker plies his trade.

Strolling slowly down the paths that crisscross the cemetery, I see crocuses sprouting everywhere between the graves in silent defiance of the decay that the tombstones represent. But what about the people whose lives have already run their course? What are their stories?

Cholera and the queen

How ironic that the coronavirus would inspire me to walk here, the final resting place of Max von Pettenkofer, who recognized the causes of pandemics and launched an initiative to eradicate them. He was responsible for two distinctly unsexy but crucial elements of modern life: a public water supply and a sewage system. A well-known hygienist and chemist in 19th century Munich, Pettenkofer was one of the first to understand the link between poor sanitation and disease.

Pettenkofer campaigned for years for the establishment of a public water supply and wastewater system. Like all cities of its time, Munich was visited regularly by epidemics of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, typhus and cholera. Pettenkofer was also a contemporary of Robert Koch, whose namesake institute has become a household word in Germany due to its central advisory role to the government in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In a bout of depression, Pettenkofer committed suicide in 1901.

The modest tomb of hygienist and chemist Max von Pettenkofer. Photo: Brenda Arnold

It was a cholera outbreak that finally convinced the civic authorities to invest in a proper water supply to replace the hand-pumped water from scattered wells and to install the world’s first proper sewage system. The beloved Queen Therese of Bavaria was one of the 3,000 victims of the cholera epidemic of 1854. Therese was a highly educated woman and author of several books based on expeditions she undertook to South America and was the wife of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (not to be confused with his grandson, Ludwig II, who as the builder of Neuschwanstein and many other castles was an extravagant waster of tax money — but which later paid off handsomely in tourist income). King Ludwig I also left an imprint of a different kind on the cemetery — but more about that in a later article.

Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen by Joseph Karl Stieler, painted in 1810, the year she became Queen of Bavaria by marrying Ludwig I

The Black Death

How appropriate, too, that I should be walking here during a pandemic, a cemetery first founded as a final resting place for victims of the most famous of pandemics — the Black Death. The fact that it is just a five-minute walk outside the old city walls is no coincidence. Plague victims are just like the rats that carry the disease: if you leave them all in one place, they tend to multiply at an alarming rate. Although one would imagine any rate is alarming where the plague is concerned. Besides, the city cemeteries had already been filled by the dead from the last epidemic. Between 1634 and 1635, a total of 15,000 victims of the Black Death were buried here. In those days they were put in mass graves, wrapped in a shroud with no coffin. The gravestones of today came much later.

What used to be outside the city walls is now embedded in its very heart, as its walls have long since made way for the Altstadtring, the ring road that replaced the route of the wall, outlining the limits of the traditional medieval town. Only two gates are left, Sendlinger Tor and Isartor. These were named after where the road would take you if you left town through that gate. Sendlinger Tor would take you to Sendling, a town just 2.5 kilometers down the road, now incorporated into Munich; Isartor would take you to the Isar River just steps away.

One tombstone catches my eye that marks the final resting place not just of a married couple, but also of their three children. This would not be particularly remarkable as a family grave as such, but this one is different. One child died at age five, another at two and the last one died at just five months of age. The family was well off enough to afford to be buried with a fine, granite tombstone, but no amount of money could save their small children from early deaths. This was also part of life as late as the 19th century when this tomb was dated.

It makes me feel fortunate. While many people today are suffering from the coronavirus, reading these epitaphs reminds me that dealing with a lockdown may be inconvenient, but there is a vaccine on the way. The high infant and maternal mortality of previous centuries is a thing of the past in the Western world, thanks to modern medicine. I guess I can deal with not going to restaurants and staying home for a few months.

Coming up next: War shaped the cemetery, but not with fallen soldiers.

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Brenda Arnold

Brenda Arnold

An American in Germany, I write historical but funny tidbits on life abroad and family relationships gleaned from raising two kids. Visit www.expatchatter.net