Our Man In Cologne


Thomas Greuel


June 1999


To Live and Die in Cologne


Store your dead grandpa in the backyard


When watching American TV, it seems that the general idea about Germany is that all people here walk around in Lederhosen or obnoxious dresses, eating Sauerkraut all day, drinking large quantities of beer, beating up foreigners and being very diligent and efficient in everything they do. This is obviously true (at least in some areas). However, Germany is slightly more diverse than that. In fact the cultural diversity of a country smaller in size than the State of Texas is vast. And to talk about Germany means to talk about its regions.

Thus every city and region takes pride in their history and to understand their background and habits requires a closer look at their roots. A good example of this is the city of Cologne.

The name of the city is derived from Cologne being a Roman fortress named after Emperor Nero's mother (Colonia Claudia Ara Aggripinensium) later shortened to Colonia Aggripinensis, then simply Colonia and finally Köln). In the Middle Ages Cologne quickly became an important city in terms of business (it is situated at the Rhine, an important traffic route, one of the main factors for economical success at the time).

The people from Cologne soon discovered that these travellers not only brought goods to trade but also money to spend. The significance of tourism was soon abundantly obvious. The big question was: Who other than businessmen travelled at the time? And the answer was pilgrims. Hence some smart person concluded that other incentives than business had to be offered to travellers to lure them into the city. As a result, business and (Christian) sights were combined. It lead Köln to fame in trading human bones. While this does not sound like a very profitable business, it is one when you trade the bones of famous folks. In the Middle Ages the most famous folks were holy. According to Roman Catholic customs, every altar up to this day needs to have the remnants of a holy person enshrined, and since there were a lot of churches but only a limited amount of Saints and even fewer holy bones, faithful business men decided to take the distribution into their hands. It was not only lucrative but also prestigious. Any church that was able to advertise having the bones of some really, really important holy guy or girl was one that attracted dignity and even more pilgrims. Cologne very quickly found out about the pleasant side effects of tourism and the city prospered. Of course a city trading these remnants also needs to stock some of the most desired bones. Around 1320 Cologne acquired the remnants of the Three Magi from Milan and thus continued to build up its importance within Europe. To this very day they are located in the Cathedral - although to be frank there are some doubts that those bones (and most others traded) are genuine - but don't mention that to the locals.

In 1248 the foundation for the Cathedral was laid, but after the city ran out of money about 300 years later, the work was stopped and the cathedral remained a giant ruin for centuries. Only about a hundred and fifty years ago it was decided that such a giant ruin right in the heart of the city was not very attractive, and it was finally finished, another smart move to get in even more tourists.

Ever since then bones have attracted the inhabitants of Cologne. For centuries they used to bury their deceased family members in their backyards. It is not known whether there was hope that one day grandpa might acquire a state of holiness (which would make selling whatever remainders there are left worthwhile).

Considering that, while the people were dedicated Catholics they were so more in theory than in action, it is rather unlikely though. The locals are very well informed about Roman Catholicism. They know their Bible by heart (or at least that there is such a thing and that they have one, although they might not be able to tell where they put it), but the awareness of the concept is good enough for most. It does by no means suggest that the faith has to be followed literally. Knowing about it suffices.

When Napoleon conquered the city in the 19th century he was appalled at the concept of backyard cemeteries, and hence he founded enormous cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. They are still in place and worth a visit, if when coming to a city you enjoy checking out the local graveyards, that is. However, since travelling through Europe means more or less admiring artifacts and ruins, a graveyard is just as good a place as the Acropolis or the Coliseum.

The people of Cologne didn't mind having to use artificial fertilisers rather than their freshly deceased uncles, since the trade of bones had long lost its significance and history had taught them that the number of Saints from Cologne were rather small. However, up to this day, the people have a very close relation to death. If you ever come into a pub around noon with a large crowd of people dressed in black, celebrating merrily, drinking large quantities of beer and schnapps, you are most likely to witness a funeral. The people are desperate to find reasons to celebrate. Every larger gathering of people is utilised to get together, talk about the good old times, drink, of course, and have fun. After the funeral ceremony with the appropriate mourning is over, the crowd quickly hastens into the next pub to enjoy sandwiches and liquid comestibles. The firm and unshakable belief is that the deceased would have wanted it that way, and that is unquestionably right and justifies even the most excessive festivities.

To wrap things up, if you are looking for a good place to die, you should consider Cologne, even if you would consider it rather unlikely that you will one day be made a Saint. The people mourning your death will have a gay time, and what better service is there than to make people happy even in the wake of your own death?

Thomas Greuel can be reached at greuel@geocities.com