Why don't cemeteries smell

Before her husband is buried, a widow notices rotting bones in the cemetery soil

By Uta Eisenhardt

Elke Murnau stood in the Friedenau artist cemetery directly in front of the grave with the number 8/81. Her husband Stefan Eidmann was to be buried here on June 8th. The retired teacher was 68 years old.

A cemetery worker had already excavated the earth with an excavator. They lay in a heap by the grave, covered with a tarpaulin. There was a pungent smell in the air. The widow asked two friends of her husband to come to the grave. They too thought it smelled of putrefaction.

A completely normal scent that belongs to the cemetery? Elke Murnau persisted. She turned to Bernd Tonat. The owner of the funeral home "Himmelsleiter" finally lifted the tarpaulin over the pile of earth. “There were a few bones sticking out in the area,” is how he describes what he saw at the time.

Had a murderer or manslayer tried to secretly make his victim disappear? The mound of earth was cordoned off. The criminal police came and had the bones taken to forensic medicine.

The widow was shocked. If she hadn't got to the bottom of the matter, the earth, riddled with strange bones, would have simply been thrown onto her husband's coffin! The tomb was suddenly completely unacceptable. "I'm not going to let my husband sink into a cesspool!" Says Elke Murnau. She had to find another grave, and quickly: Each day that the person to be buried has to spend in the cold store costs 50 euros.

In her anger she turned to the cemetery administration, then to the mayor of Tempelhof-Schöneberg. Days passed - with no response.

Additional horror

Elke Murnau rattled the neighborhood cemeteries on her bike to find a new grave site. She was looking for a lawyer to help her withdraw from the lease on the unusable grave and demand compensation for the added horror she was exposed to in her already fragile situation. The widow was busy, just not with her grief.

Meanwhile, the investigators of the criminal police, together with the cemetery administration, recapitulated when the last bodies were buried in grave 8/81 and in the adjacent graves. The forensic doctors analyzed the bacterial and insect infestation on the delivered bones to find out how long they had been decaying.

Last Thursday, Stefan Eidmann was finally buried in the Old St. Matthew Cemetery. The scandal had already got around - the cemetery workers there knew that nothing should go wrong now.

In the end the widow was relieved: A childhood friend had given a speech, the Jewish lullaby “Makh tsu di Eygelekh” had played on the piano, and a friend had trumpeted “Summertime”. “For you and always for you” was heard - a fitting greeting to the neighboring grave where Rio Reiser lies.

The Berlin police could also breathe a sigh of relief: “There is no criminal offense,” says Martin Halweg, one of their spokesmen. Rather, the standard dimensions of the graves have changed: The holes for the coffins have to be dug larger than before. That is why the Friedenau cemetery employee dug the neighboring graves with his excavator and brought the bones of the dead in them to the surface. The tissue still adhering to them caused the unpleasant odor.

What remains is the irreverence in dealing with the affected dead and the mourners. A cemetery worker who does not pay attention to what he is pulling from the depths with his excavator. A cemetery administration that allows more than a week to pass before offering the widow formal help in finding an alternative grave instead of quickly clearing the matter up with a bouquet of flowers and an apology. An avoidable forensic examination. And a widow who may be left with the additional costs of the postponed funeral.

Fortunately, Elke Murnau has finally found a worthy place to mourn.