What do a brave knight, a frog with a crown, and a clown playing the piano have in common? Not much at first glance. And yet you can find them all in Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, Germany. While these little figures pale in comparison to ornate angel statues, that would be welcomed in any art museum, they convey an equally powerful message: I am thinking of you.
Few families today can afford to provide their loved one with a life-size angelic companion in bronze or marble. But they can, however, leave a myriad of small, inexpensive tokens, in the form of toys, figurines, books, signs, and similar items upon the graves.
These items — as simple as they are — express emotions too profound for words. They also provide insights into the lives of the departed and how they are remembered by the living. I am always touched by how people express their love and sense of loss through these small tokens.
Of Knights And Frogs
The little toy knight on the grave of a child once conquered castles, fought tournaments, and won the heart of a gorgeous princess. Today he guards the eternal sleep of the little boy, who perhaps played with this very toy or ones similar to it. One can only imagine the feelings of the parents, siblings, or other relatives as they placed this token of their affection on the boy’s grave.
“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”
— C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature
At another grave, I encountered a frog, wearing a golden crown on its head. Is it an enchanted prince, waiting for the kiss that will release him from a curse? Was the departed fond of the fairy tale, “The Frog Prince,” as told by the Brothers Grimm? The lovingly crocheted colorful scarf around his neck, with a small golden bell hanging at the end, is especially touching. Will it ring when he turns back into a prince?
“I want not your pearls, and jewels, and fine clothes; but if you will love me, and let me live with you and eat from off your golden plate, and sleep upon your bed, I will bring you your ball again.”
— The Frog Prince, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
All The World’s A Stage
Clowns have mastered the art of making people laugh. Like the court jester in the Middle Ages, they have yet another meaning: They reflect our own behavior and thus make it easier to laugh at ourselves. Behind their cheerful masquerade, clowns often hide their experience in learning how to deal with suffering.
“Be a clown, be a clown, all the world loves a clown.”
— Cole Porter, The Pirate, 1948
The clown I met at Ohlsdorf cemetery is only about the size of a hand. He is sitting on a small pedestal in front of his piano, smiling. Whenever I pass by, he reminds me that we can never know what another person might be going through behind his cheerful facade.
Clowns and death have always been friendly figures. They often die in the ring, only to reappear a short time later, laughing and gesticulating wildly. The idea of placing a clown on a grave doesn’t seem so absurd if you consider their portrayal of coming back to life during their performances. The people buried here may have mastered the art of being able to laugh at themselves.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Of Grand Emotions And Small Gestures
Judaism and Christianity feature the concept of the “Book of Life.” It is a divine directory containing the names of every person destined for Heaven or the World to Come. What a moving gesture it is to put a “Book of Love” (the German word “Liebe” translates to “Love”) on a grave. The message: The story of our love did not end with the last page.
Messages of love can be found everywhere in the cemetery and take many forms. “Mommy” is one of the most popular.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
— Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa
Of Ducklings And Swans
Did this little duckling in its swimsuit once share a bathtub with someone or was it a symbol of something more?
In myth and literature, the swan symbolizes not only transformation, but light, intuition, and grace. In the ancient Greek world, the swan stood for the soul. Thus, a pair of swans represents soul mates for life and eternity. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the largest rural cemetery in the world (roughly 391 hectare), is home to several pairs of swans and various other animals.
Birds and graves are a common combination. Feathered friends have been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. Their symbolism covers a wide range, including immortality, departed souls, and spirit messengers. An empty bird cage in a cemetery is a less common sight. It represents the soul freed from earthly restraints.
“Those who fully express their soul are peaceful, bold, and confident. They can be peaceful because they know that their essence is eternal, indestructible wholeness, and they are bold and confident because they know their own absolute value.”
— Ilchi Lee, Bird of the Soul
Near the main entrance of Ohlsdorf Cemetery, I found this grave marker covered in ivy, with the inscription: “Quo vadis.” This Latin phrase translates as “Where are you going?” Looking at it, I could not help but add the thought — And where are you now?
Whatever tokens we leave on the graves of our loved ones, the message is always clear: Wherever you are, I am thinking of you.
“Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.”
— Henry King (1592–1669), Bishop of Chichester, Exequy of his wife
For those who would like to read more about heartfelt epitaphs inscribed on gravestones, I recommend the book: “Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in Stone” by John Thomas Grant.
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