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Germany mourns 100,000 COVID-19 deaths

November 25, 2021

Germany has become the latest country to pass the sad threshold. According to figures from the country's Robert Koch Institute, 100,000 people have now died of COVID-19. Behind every number is a name, and a person.

An older man wearing a face mask puts a grave light on a grave
Mourning COVID victims has shaped Germany's societyImage: Ute Grabowsky/photothek/imago images

A year ago, Kerstin lost her 83-year-old father to COVID-19.

"I'm sure he knew that we were there," she said, telling DW of his final days in a hospital bed. "Even if I was only able to stroke his forehead with my gloved hand."

Kerstin lives in Düsseldorf — 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) from her parents, who were based in Berlin. Despite the virus' infectiousness and strict social distancing restrictions, the hospital called to say a final visit was possible. To Kerstin, the oldest daughter, the choice was clear.

"I at least wanted to say goodbye to my father," she said. With her son, she got in her car and drove to Berlin to spend 10 minutes with him. "We were head-to-toe in plastic," she remembered. Her father died the next day.

He had been taken into hospital with tuberculosis and only contracted the coronavirus later, probably from a doctor who was treating him. Now he is one of Germany's 100,000 people — according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control — who has since officially died from the illness. Kerstin's memories prompt laughter and tears, as she recalls her father's life and the randomness of his death.

Caregivers have also suffered.

Nurses have been struggling in the pandemic, seeing people being put on ventilators with their health deteriorating."We're all afraid of dying," caregiver Rita Kremers told DW.

One of her colleagues died from the virus in the ICU, she said, six weeks after infection. "It really hits you when it's a person you knew who dies," she said.

Commemorating the COVID dead

Germany has already held an official commemoration event to honor its COVID-19 dead, with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meeting with families of victims in April. At that point, the death toll was just over 70,000. Weeks later, he made remarks as the number climbed to 80,000.

"The burden of the pandemic is exhausting and we struggle with finding the right way forward. That's why we need a moment to pause," he said at the time.

Other communities have found their own ways to mark the personal and national tragedy, with some towns planting memorial trees in cemeteries for their dead.

"The sympathies of the entire city go out to all those left behind and especially those who couldn't be with their loved ones in their final hours," Stephan Keller, Düsseldorf's mayor, wrote in a message at one such memorial event.

Experts have been helping people to deal with death and dying.

"We shouldn't just think about the 100,000 dead, but also those who died from loneliness in the first wave. Or those who died because a cancer treatment had to be postponed," Dirk Pörschmann, director of the Museum for Sepulchral Culture in the central city of Kassel, told DW.

"It has to be dealt with very sensitively. It's about upholding a person's dignity after death," said Dietmar Preissler, collection director at Bonn's Haus der Geschichte, which has been gathering pandemic-related items for the museum.

A graphic showing COVID cases and deaths in Germany since March 2020

A funeral director's helplessness

Fabian Lenzen, a fifth-generation undertaker in Berlin, remembers the "huge sense of helplessness" in the early months of the pandemic. He had to work carefully with those who died of the virus, but "reasonable protective clothing" made the risk "manageable," he said.

The pandemic has stretched his role running a funeral home.

"How do I deal with family members? What's possible and what isn't? How do I tell them that it isn't possible to say goodbye," Lenzen said. "We aren't ministers. But we've filled that role all the more just by doing our normal secularization work."

Comforting the bereaved

Individual tragedy, felt by everyone

Those who do have a pastoral role, such as Hanover's Protestant bishop, Petra Bahr, confront these questions regularly.

Every death is "on one hand a history and on the other, a life cut short," she said, describing the rising COVID death toll as "outrageous."

"We've almost gotten used to just coolly noting it," said Bahr. "Numbers don't die. People die."

Even as death touches more and more people — everyone from pregnant women to young fathers, she said — "it seems to interest us less and less, even as this death is connected to more and more consequences, and more and more misery, suffering and destroyed lives."

Historians like Preissler think the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the country. Just like Black Death in the Middle Ages or the 1918 flu pandemic, COVID-19 "will also influence society," he said.

For all the loss, the cold reality is that there is more death to come. As Germany mourns its 100,000 dead, it is also bracing for another long winter and a fourth wave of infections.

This article was originally written in German. 

Edited by: Richard Connor

Correction, November 25, 2021: A previous version of this article misspelled Dirk Pörschmann's name. It also misidentified Petra Bahr as an Evangelical bishop, instead of Protestant. DW apologizes for the errors.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C