This is the first installment of what I hope will be a thought provoking series on community-based death practices around the world. The idea came when I saw a Facebook post about a vending machine at a cemetery in a Zürich neighborhood. The author of the post was Jessica Jacinta Mijnssen, and when I asked for more information she sent what is now the first #DeathDispatch:

The Sihlfeld cemetery in Zürich has taken its role in the community seriously in the past few years. They began by leaving their gates open all night, trusting their neighbors and acknowledging that the large green spaces around and between the gravesites are important in the neighborhood and that closed gates inconvenienced people heading home from work. (60% of the 288,000m2 are green spaces and only 40% are gravesites.) Rolf Steinmann, head of the burial and cemetery department of Zürich said that visitors have not disappointed them and that security guards have not seen anyone breaking the cemetery rules since they began leaving their gates open.

Along with multiple historical exhibitions and regular scheduled tours, there is now a non-profit “mourning vending machine” at the main entrance of the cemetery. The machine is a Bachelor Project for Lea Hofer, who is studying design at the art college of Zürich, in collaboration with the Cemetery Forum of Zürich.

“The vending machine doesn’t just create an opposition to the taboo nature of the mourning process but also aims to give people in mourning more attention within the city. Death is disappearing more and more in our daily life. It seems there is no space in our community for a conscious interaction with loss and sadness. Slowing down and visibility are two core themes that we’re trying to deal with, with the help of this vending machine” wrote Hofer.

The machine contains traditional cemetery accessories, like black ribbons, facial-tissues a rosary and the traditional red candleholders that are commonly found on Swiss graves. There are uplifting things like sparklers and soap bubbles, sidewalk chalk and a packet of forget-me-not seeds. There are also blank cards for sympathy, pads and markers for recording people’s thoughts and memories, as well as tea bags, with the label “gift someone time.” Objects cost 3-5 Swiss Francs per item, which cover the cost of production and the electricity to run the machine.

I’d love to know how Hofer’s project has been received by mourners and community members. I am grateful for any effort that makes talking about death and mourning easier. One of the features of a vending machine is to make what’s inside visible and even desirable. It is, after all, designed to sell things. I’ve generally thought of of vending machines as the providers of those things we need immediately, impulsively, or at the last minute: the snack after the meeting that went on too long, or the tampon when my period comes unexpectedly, but they’re also a kind of public display of necessaries. Grief and mourning are two processes that we all must confront at different points in our lives. Why not make some of the necessaries associated with them more public, more visible, and more accessible?

How is death recognized, celebrated, commercialized, or marked in your communities? Do you have something to share in a #DeathDispatch? Use the contact form and let me know!

 

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