Undertaker Claudia Marschner learned her trade in the AIDS crisis. A conversation about colorful coffins and funerals during a pandemic.
taz on the weekend: Ms. Marschner, the cemeteries in Berlin have since been closed. Not because of too many deaths, but because there were too many living there due to the corona crisis. Do walkers, children at play and dogs disturb the dead calm?
Claudia Marschner: There have always been walkers in cemeteries, including people who read there. There are now cafes too. Cemeteries are now integrated cultural sites in the city. What if children say they want to play there in the current situation? They just want to get out! It's healthy too. And then there is nothing more with a distance of two meters. But our lungs need fresh air. When I'm on my bike now, I sometimes think I'm going back to old Berlin.
Which Berlin, that of the eighties?
That was still the case in the nineties. In 2008 there was the real estate hustle and a huge interest in Berlin. More people are actually okay, there are also in New York. But the Germans just don't have the mentality to say: "Hey, how are you?" A bit of superficiality would perhaps be quite good with this tightness, sometimes a smile. But now the streets are clear and people actually smile at each other when they have to dodge. I get through wonderfully when I have to bike to the registry offices.
The papers have to be brought there, the death notices, so that people can get their death certificates. In any case, it has made my job easier at the moment.
You don't have any more customers?
No. And I am also the eternal optimist. If all else fails, we'll hang ourselves up! At the same time, I see an empty, fearful city – I find that really scary. And it amazes me how well everyone agrees and says: Yes, I'll close my shop and go home. There is something terrifying about this obedience.
Funerals are also covered by the new regulations.
We just had a situation like this: from fifty guests you are no longer allowed in the mourning hall. If there are only ten guests, you can still grapple. And you have to register yourself in lists so that the infection can be traced in the event of a possible infection. In the case of larger funeral societies, you now have to go directly to the grave – something we used to call “silent burial” in the past. In practice, the fact that people only take part in the "silent burial" is also cheaper, and then they go home and eat there together.
But you can't.
I honestly wouldn't unload my friends. It's a funeral, not a corona party.
A funeral is about a goodbye together. Farewells are approaching us, but togetherness is currently rather difficult.
So, in Berlin we have quite large mourning halls, sometimes 300 people can fit in there. You can keep your distance. If such a farewell goes wrong or cannot take place, you will remember it for 30 years. If afterwards it turns out that everything was exaggerated with social distancing, people will get angry.
In your opinion, a funeral is indispensable?
These are drastic events. Even people with little money give everything that it will be a dignified celebration. With flowers, a meal together afterwards. But if you have to go to the cemetery and you can only burial the coffin, then it is really silent and silent. Then the families feel bad. You cannot repeat a farewell.
In Bergamo, many people are dying in hospitals alone. Funerals take place every half hour, without celebrations.
That's awful. I only know that the system is different in Italy, you are used to faster burials there, and therefore there is not so much cooling capacity. And it's also a question of organization, preparation – I remember, at Ebola A few years ago, the authorities called and asked what capacity we have. The chain of infection was already broken in Africa, but they gave an early warning here and wrote to the undertaker.
Were there any such warnings now?
Not at all. Although Covid is in the same epidemic. But of course we also take appropriate protective measures. We tell the guests that they shouldn't be there when they are dressed, you can also take a picture of it. And you can put your hand on the closed coffin to say goodbye – we won't open it anymore, as we won't with hepatitis C or tuberculosis. We also divided the teams in the morning and afternoon so that the whole group is not sick when someone is infected. We have to somehow manage the balancing act of enabling closeness and at the same time offering protection.
Like the Social distancing rules the regulations for funerals in Germany are also not uniform. In many federal states, funerals can now only take place in the closest family circle.
It really reminds me of the days of AIDS, when gay partners were excluded from the funeral service because they were not part of the biological family. Then it was said: This is our boy and he will be buried in our village. Now family is only the biological family again. Rules are being put in place that we have to be careful not to loosen again later.
The corona pandemic reminds you of the AIDS crisis?
So, the Germans are a relatively sorted people – but there was a good deal of hysteria back then. There was the same scenario in the media: what kind of virus is it? How do we get infected? Can we drink from a glass? Can we go to the dentist? Can we still touch each other? Can we kiss, and if so, how? Until then some right Fuzzi said: It's a gay disease. And, boom, everyone was satisfied, it only affects the gays. To date, 32 million people have died of it worldwide. From this perspective, this corona virus is not yet a GAU. And that's why I sometimes don't understand the radical nature of the current measures – in the eighties and nineties, so many people died of AIDS in one fell swoop that I really thought: you might prefer to leave the job as an undertaker. I was really afraid of the visibility of the virus: what it did to people and their bodies. And it was on the gay community, and everyone else was given the all clear – which was not true at all.
AIDS was considered the "illness of others": gays, drug users, prostitutes.
was born in Berlin in 1966. After school and several professional positions, she worked as a real estate agent for two years. From 1990 to 1992 she worked in a conventional funeral home before opening her own funeral home in 1992. Marschner burials are located in Berlin-Kreuzberg (at Lokdepot 2). On the website of Marschner burials there are some of the unconventional coffins and urns to be seen.
I still admire the gay community today, who said attack is the best defense. It was also a very masculine energy: AIDS affects everyone! Everyone has to protect themselves! AIDS aid was founded, hospices. And only then did society realize: this concerns us all.
At some point, everyone talked about condoms – a bit like masks today.
The gay community was revolutionary, even without throwing stones. I am always good at that Old St. Matthäus churchyard explain an evangelical cemetery in Berlin-Schöneberg. Back then, people still insisted on organ music and all traditions. Playing "My Way" or even songs by Freddy Mercury would have been unthinkable – let alone colored or painted coffins.
Yes, why only brown? Why not red or purple? And why white coffins only for nuns? First this cemetery was revolutionized drop by drop – then the others gradually followed. The association church POSITIVE was founded. And there was a pastor Dorothea StraussI often met them in cemeteries at the time. With that you had the wife of God behind you, so the cemetery administrations gave in small. But they were also afraid: are they now making a party mile out of our cemetery? Changes are slow, but the community has also had courage. There were strong activists like Melitta Sundström and Ovo Maltine. Or the photographer Jürgen Baldiga, who took pictures of his AIDS phases. At that time, there were no medications, and HIV-positive was an almost certain death sentence.
Did it start then that children were allowed to paint coffins?
Yes. At the time, many thought that gays only lived in a bubble with their peers. But many did not realize that the siblings or friends had children. Then there were nieces and nephews who wanted to paint and design the coffin. Just like there were many artists in the community who came up to me. Then someone just said: Come on, I'll paint the coffin for you. If you sell that, we'll share the money. But Corona also comes at a time when many artists have been driven out of Berlin. I see more fear than creativity at the moment.
Corona is more likely to threaten old people – young people die of AIDS.
Yes, it hit young people and made a hole in life. Sexuality means life, having fun, touching yourself. And this is actually the case on a nastier level. If you could say, okay, another virus, no sex again – but at least you could hug.
Sex is still possible, but preferably only with your partner. Like in the fifties.
You really have to be careful. What is realistic and what does politics make of it. For me as a native of Berlin, that triggers something when it says: borders tight. I'm walking the streets now, and when I see friends, we make foot salutes. What are we unlearning?
Things also grew out of AIDS.
Naturally. Gay people are not called gay people for nothing – the LGBTI * may forgive me -, gay means humorous, cheerful. And that's how they dealt with it. I was going out a lot at the time, and you were able to see the effects on the dance floor in concrete terms. Then people were gone. Condoms were later distributed, but with a joke, with ease despite everything. I would now like to see colorful masks, funny masks, masks with inscriptions such as "Think about Italy". Singing in suffering, making the best of it, that was very Berlin. I also had to think a lot about my grandma, who had to get pregnant with my mother in the air cellar. They told jokes and cackled.
Now there are toilet paper jokes.
The funniest thing I read was: "I have now frozen toilet paper." That's how you have to deal with it. I just miss that with the politicians, as relaxed as with Klaus Wowereit, who went to the Berlin CSD with a “Mutti vons Janze” jacket.
Klaus Wowereit has just lost his husband to Corona and is alone in quarantine. We are not coming together as a society or a community. With AIDS you could still meet to dance or cry, now we are totally atomized.
We are isolated. I'm more used to rest in my industry – more precisely, to the dead. And then you have a need for life in return. And now you can't meet. I just say: You have to trust a state very much.
Is it true that you talk to the dead when you are alone with them?
At the beginning of my professional life, I always coped with my fear, "Oh, Mr. Schmidt, your wife brought me such a jacket here", so I simulated a bit of life. At some point I realized that I don't have to speak out loud for that. But I communicate. "Hello, I am the undertaker, I will be careful." I also have the feeling that there is something else. When is someone dead? For me, a dead person is not a thing, but a human being. Doctors may see it differently, a corpse is then a medical object.
Your first encounter with death was tough: you were very young when you lost your mother through suicide.
It's been a long time since I was fourteen.
Had this early one Experience of loss something to do with your later career choice?
Well, it wasn't like I said at some point that it was my dream to become an undertaker. In the years after my mother died, I thought more like: You have to get out, you have to become famous. I can't end up like my mother. I was such a hibble. I always had to go out and go out and dance. Then one day a friend called and said he was working for an undertaker now and if I didn't want to join. And then we worked together for a while
Just for a while?
I was young and thought, no, so I don't want to take care of corpses yet. At the same time, I realized that I had a lot in common with my mother, and there was a lot going up, including grief. Then I wanted to know: where did they go back then, what is forensic medicine anyway? Who touched them and how? And were you kidding? I finally learned the job, even though it wasn't a training job at the time, but the old hands passed on the tricks. All the legends were then dissolved in my head.
Undertakers break bones, things like that. I noticed that they are nice people too – and they don't joke about the dead. And then came the time of AIDS and I was right in the middle of a time when other ways of grief were now being followed – that was also a nice experience.
A diverse burial culture has become a matter of course today.
The AIDS community has, so to speak, opened the doors and said: Now you can create your own mourning paradise. In the nineties, no one would have thought that it was possible to enter a cemetery Coffee shop to open instead of a flower shop. But why not drink coffee in a cemetery?
What are you not allowed to do?
I learned from AIDS what it means to compromise, what coexistence means. You don't have to clear the altar in an evangelical cemetery just because you are colorful yourself. If someone had a problem with religious symbols, a bouquet of flowers was simply draped in front of the cross. There were subtle nuances so that the cemetery administration never had to intervene. There were announcements: Comes in white, comes in rainbow colors – but no destruction. It is not about bowling the others away, but about the fact that there is no exclusivity. Believe and gay is fine. Or at least respect.