Unhaunted Graves: Halloween, Reformation Day, “Luther Year” and Totensonntag

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
– Marcus Tulius Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman writer, politician and orator

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”
– George Eliot

Wittenberg city hall

Martin Luther’s statue stands in front of the city hall in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany. The banner below the window proclaims the “Luther Year 2017.” PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Although celebrating Halloween has become increasingly popular in Germany and Austria over the last decade or so, it can still elicit a mixed reaction from many Germans. The fact that All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) falls on October 31, the exact same date connected with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, leads to a conflict between the religious holiday and the “pagan” Halloween celebration. Although it is not a German nationwide holiday, as some have proposed, the 31st day of October is Reformation Day (Reformationstag). It is a holiday only in some majority Protestant (Lutheran, evangelisch) states. But I propose a solution that accommodates both factions in October and November: cemetery tours and/or a visit to some historical Luther sites.

Although many people consider Halloween a pagan observance, it is actually a Western Christian holiday, the first day of Allhallowtide, encompassing three Western Church observances: All Saints’ Eve (All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’, Allerheiligen) and All Souls’ Day (Allerseelen). Originally, around the 15th century, Allhallowtide was a time to remember the dead, but particularly the martyrs, saints, and faithful departed Christians. There is some doubt if Halloween arose out of pagan Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, as some historians claim.

Día de Muertos

Families celebrate the Day of the Dead in a cemetery near Oaxaca, Mexico.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The Mexican Day of the Dead tradition dates back to long before Cortez and the Christian Church. Día de Muertos began as a weeks-long Aztec harvest celebration overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead, Queen of the Underworld). The custom of going to cemeteries to honor dead relatives and commune with the souls of the departed was later adapted to the Christian calendar and Allhallowtide. I have personally witnessed this wonderful custom in Oaxaca and its surrounding communities. Rather than the common Western view of cemeteries as forbidding, ghoulish, unwelcoming places, I prefer the Mexican attitude of celebrating life by bringing light (candles) there and spending time with family.

In Germany (and parts of Switzerland) a similar Protestant observance is known as Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead). Like Day of the Dead, people go to cemeteries to remember friends and family who are deceased, but only during the day, and not with the nighttime candle-lit observances of Día de Muertos in Mexico. (See more about Totensonntag below.)

I like to tour German and other cemeteries in the joyful, unhaunted spirit of Day of the Dead rather than the black-clad, morbid attitude of Western culture, or the spooky fright-night, creepy mood of Halloween. To find German cemeteries and the noted people interred there, see below and this German Way page: Famous Graves. We will be expanding our graveyard guide over the next few months, and below we present a preview of some of the future entries. But first let’s look at a cool way to celebrate Reformation Day and Halloween – if you’re in Germany and within driving distance of Lutherstadt Wittenberg. This city is actually the first stop in our graveyard tour, although Luther, among others, was laid to rest inside the Schlosskirche, also known as All Saints’ Church, in Wittenberg. This church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wittenberg water

A view of Wittenberg with the steeple of the Schlosskirche in the background. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Residents of Berlin can reach Wittenberg via a scenic day trip by car. Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as the name suggests, has a strong tie to the German religious reformer. 2017 has been designated “das Lutherjahr” (the year of Luther), celebrating the 500th anniversary of the year Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. You can visit that church and view the metal doors that now bear the text of his theses. (The original doors from 1517 were destroyed in a fire in the 18th century.) Inside you will see a beautiful church in which the tombs of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon are located. On Luther’s tomb, located beneath the pulpit, you’ll see this inscription (in German): “Here is buried the body of the Doctor of Sacred Theology, Martin Luther, who died in the year of Christ 1546, on February 18th, in his hometown Eisleben, after having lived for 63 years, 2 months, and 10 days.”

There are other sights to see in Wittenberg, many of them also connected to Martin Luther, but we don’t have enough space here to cover them now. So we’ll move on to some other possibilities in Germany.

Suggested Grave Visits
Below you’ll find photos of some suggested grave sites in various German cities. Fall is a wonderful time to visit cemeteries, but any time of year is suitable. You can find more notable people and their graves on our Famous Graves pages.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
Playwright (Threepenny Opera). Berlin: Dorotheenstädtischer and Friedrichswerder Friedhof, Chausseestraße 126

Brecht grave in Berlin

Brecht lies next to his wife, Helene Weigel-Brecht, in Berlin. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
Film actress (The Blue Angel, 1930), Destry Rides Again, A Foreign Affair, and Witness for the Prosecution. Dietrich died in Paris, where she spent the last decade of her life.
Berlin: Städtischer Friedhof III (Friedenau), Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45. The grave of German fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1902-2004) is in this same cemetery.

Marlene Dietrich's grave

Dietrich’s grave in Berlin is marked with a red Ehrengrab (Grave of Honor) brick. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron, 1892-1918)
Legendary World War I flying ace who shot down 80 enemy aircraft. Later known as “The Red Baron,” Richthofen had a total of four burials!
Wiesbaden: Südfriedhof (South Cemetery), since 1975


In the same Wiesbaden cemetery where the Red Baron’s grave is found, you can also visit this special section with less well-known soldiers who perished in the First World War. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812)
Mayer Rothschild was the German Jewish founder of the European financial dynasty that began in Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s. Over time Mayer and his sons expanded their banking and financial empire from Frankfurt to London, Naples, Paris, and Vienna.
Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Friedhof (Jewish Cemetery), Battonstraße 2.

The graves of Mayer Amschel’s sons (and their wives) lie in the Alter Jüdischer Friedhof (Old Jewish Cemetery) on Rat-Beil-Straße. A framed, glass-enclosed map near the Old Jewish Cemetery entrance shows the location of the Rothschild family graves, as well as the grave of Paul Ehrlich, the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of a cure for syphilis, and other notable Frankfurt Jews. A third Jewish cemetery, the New Jewish Cemetery, north of Frankfurt’s Main Cemetery, was opened in 1928. Address: Eckenheimer Landstraße 238.


The senior Rothschild’s eldest son, Amschel Mayer Rothschild, and other descendants of the banking magnate are buried here in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Frankfurt. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

German Fall Remembrance Holidays

Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead): Totensonntag, also called Ewigkeitssonntag (Eternity Sunday) or Totenfest, is a German and Swiss religious holiday observed mainly in Lutheran churches. It falls on the last Sunday before the first Advent Sunday, which means the holiday always falls between November 20 and November 26. In 2016, Totensonntag is on November 20 (26 Nov. 2017 and 25 Nov. 2018). Some people celebrate the day by visiting the cemetery of loved ones, friends, or relatives to lay fresh flowers and tend the grave.

Volkstrauertag: Germany’s Volkstrauertag (National Day of Mourning) is an official federal holiday in Germany, but because it always is observed on a Sunday, it is considered one of the so-called stille Tagen, or “quiet days,” a time for silence and reflection. Similar to Veterans Day in the United States, or Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth and Canada (on or about Nov. 11), it is a day to honor the fallen soldiers in all of Germany’s wars, but also victims of violence anywhere, not just victims of war. Like Veterans Day or Remembrance Day, the tradition dates back to the end of World War I, and was first observed in the Reichstag on March 1, 1925. During the Weimar Republic, it was not an official holiday, but was observed in February or March until 1934. In 1935 the Nazis changed the name to Heldengedenktag (Heroes Commemoration Day), which also usually was observed in the month of March.

After World War II, beginning in 1946, the day was observed in its original form in West Germany. In 1952, the date was moved to November, partly in an effort to distinguish the holiday from the Nazi-tainted Heldengedenktag. It is more of a formal, ceremonial observance (“Hour of Remembrance”) in the Bundestag than a real holiday. Most states (Bundesländer) also hold their own observances. This may include the German national anthem and the song “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden” (“I had a comrade”), also known as “Der gute Kamerad” (1825). Veterans also organize ceremonies that may include a procession from a church service to a war memorial, with prayers, speeches, wreath-laying, and a military guard of honor. Since 1952, the observance takes place two Sundays before Advent Sunday. In 2016, Volkstrauertag is on November 13. (19 Nov. 2017 and 18 Nov. 2018).


Also see: The German Way of Death and Funerals

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