German museum of death anything but morbid | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 01.11.2009
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German museum of death anything but morbid

Despite its somber content, the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, in Kassel, Germany, is housed in a bright, airy space - a good choice for a museum that looks at the connections between death, dying and creativity.

19th century and 20th century hearse, side by side

The museum has a collection of hearses

The Day of the Dead, celebrated primarily in Mexico and Central America, is just one of many traditions around the world that commemorate - and honor - death. The Kassel Museum of Sepulchral Culture takes a look at these traditions via artefacts and multimedia.

The airy, modern museum building is perched on the highest point of Kassel's city center. The architectural style is meant to be a contrast to the ominous subject matter.

Of loss and flamenco dancing

The universal experience of mourning and loss has been a key creative force since the beginning of time. So it is no surprise that, in addition to the expected artefacts surrounding the European culture of death and mourning, the museum offers some creative programming as well.

Take dancing, for instance. The museum has had flamenco dance on its program because it is a form of dance that expresses a spectrum of emotions according to museum director Reiner Soerries.

"There are scores of films in which flamenco is danced as an expression of lost love, and in which all of that anger and rage manifests itself in the dance," Soerries said. "That type of loss follows us throughout life, and we need to find ways to express it."

Flamenco dancer

There is a connection between dance and death, experts say

Of course, the museum features the expected artefacts as well, displaying coffins, hearses, and mourning clothing and jewelry, primarily from central Europe.

The collection focuses "on German sepulchral culture beginning with the early modern era, from approximately the 16th and 17th century on. However, we like to look past the horizon with our special exhibitions," Soerries said.

For instance, the museum might look back at antiquity with an exhibition about the Etruscan cult of the dead, or delve into other cultures' attitudes and habits surrounding death.

Colorful coffins

One such exhibit focused on coffins from Ghana. That country has largely abandoned traditional, sombre coffins, instead painting them in bright colors and building them in the shapes of musical instruments, cars, or animals - any object that symbolizes what the deceased person cared about during his or her lifetime.

A Ghanaian coffin that is shaped like a rooster is now in the museum’s permanent collection.

Even aside from the occasional flamenco program, dancing shows up in other exhibits: near the Ghanaian coffins are two costumes complete with large masks resembling Asian dragons. They are part of a traditional Tibetan dance of the dead, which plays on a video screen at the museum.

A coffin in the shape of a rooster from Ghana.

Ghana is known for creative and bright coffins

Plague art

What would a European museum of death be without reference to the Great Plague? The museum displays works of art from the 15th and 16th centuries - when the Bubonic Plague spread throughout Europe - showing a skeletal death figure dancing in circles with humans.

One painting originating from Basel, Switzerland shows a group of 42 pairs of figures, and one partner in each pair is human, while the other is the figure of death.

The human figure in each pair may be "the emperor, the Pope, a king or a nobleman. But it could also be a mother, a child, or a beggar. Which is to say: death is everyone’s companion, regardless of their rank or name."

Author: Michael Przibilla (gps)

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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