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Beyond angels and crosses

Interview: Sarah Steffen
November 15, 2012

The case of a young soccer fan whose parents wanted to put a ball on top of his gravestone have stirred up discussions on what's allowed in German cemeteries. A stonemason says times certainly have changed.

Gravestone shaped as a cell phone (photo: Federico Gambarini)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: What sorts of unusual requests have you received from customers regarding gravestone designs?

Hans-Peter Melchisedech: Now and then, people do ask for things from us as well. I engraved a motorcycle and I also know of a gravestone nearby with a soccer ball. In Cologne, there's a gravestone shaped like a cell phone. It's not that uncommon anymore these days.

These gravestones were actually approved?

The respective administrative authorities [from municipal cemeteries] did approve them. They didn't have a problem with depicting such symbols on a gravestone.

These gravestones could be compared to that of the nine-year-old from Dortmund who was a fan of the local soccer team.

There's definitely a similarity. I personally don't understand why the Catholic Church would deny such matters. Times are changing and the symbols in graveyards have changed as well. It's not the classic cross or a statue anymore.

A man walks past the young boy's grave in Dortmund (photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa)
The boy's grave still doesn't have a proper gravestone - but it's in the works as a compromise was foundImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Have you found regulations tighter for Catholic cemeteries compared to those run by municipalities?

I think this has recently changed a bit as well. Here [in Trier], two cemeteries run by the church have statutes with tighter regulations compared to the ones from the municipality. But I can choose the municipal cemetery over the church cemetery if I don't embrace these regulations. The only shortfall is - for both - that they often fail to inform people about regulations right away. Most of the times, the burial takes place and it's only afterwards when people come up with their wishes for a gravestone and then they notice that there are restrictions. In my opinion, information needs to be provided earlier.

And why are municipal cemeteries more flexible?

The municipal cemeteries see the risk of courts deciding against them in a dispute. For instance an angel made out of concrete was erected, and authorities said 'it needs to go, it's not allowed in our cemetery regulations, it doesn't allow for a concrete gravestone.' It didn't stand up in a court of law. The judges decided in favor of Basic Law: Everyone has the freedom of expression.

Have you personally ever declined a request for a gravestone design?

No, it has never happened to me within 40 years on the job that I had to say: No, I don't do something like that.

Hans-Peter Melchisedech (photo: Hans-Peter Melchisedech)
Stonemason Melchisedech says he didn't have to decline a single requestImage: privat

A soccer ball on top of a gravestone isn't indecent. Now, the ball will be put next to the gravestone. Does it matter whether it's on top or next to it?

I personally don't see a difference either. There are examples in case law - when more than 50 percent of visitors or users feel disturbed in their devotions or ethical feelings are hurt, a cemetery's administration can say this needs to be removed or that cannot be put up in the first place. But this hasn't happened in my region at least, that someone wanted to put something up that wasn't in accordance with the place's dignity.

Hans-Peter Melchisedech has been a stonemason for 40 years and chairs the stonemason and stone sculptor guild in the western German city Trier.