I visited an intriguing place recently, right in the center of the city of Mainz, in Germany. I had come to pay my respects to Cardinal Lehmann who died earlier this year and is buried in the crypt of the historic Cathedral. People continue to leave flowers and candles at this place of mourning; the Cardinal, who served as bishop of Mainz for 33 years, is one of the “beloved dead” here.
In walking distance from his final resting place is a quite different place of mourning. It was dedicated just a few months earlier, as a “Trauerort” — a public place for mourning. The site is an invitation, especially to migrants and refugees, who have not only lost their home but also the graves of their beloved dead. Even sadder, some of those who have made their way to Europe, have lost loved ones in their very flight from places of violence and conflict; think of those lost at sea, on perilous boat journeys across the Mediterranean. How and where to mourn – visibly, noticeably, publicly – when there is no cemetery that houses your beloved dead, and no public memorial to those you left behind?
This is where the idea of a Trauerort comes in. Mainz is not the only or first city in Germany that now includes such a place for mourning; the city of Düsseldorf opened a first “intercultural place of mourning” in 2011. In Mainz, the Trauerort is located on the side of a Baroque Catholic church; the parish collaborated in the creation of this public space. It is a quiet spot, in the midst of a busy city. A tree offers shade, and two stone half-circles, which can serve as a bench and/or candle stand, face each other, like two arms that hold something precious in their midst. The design is by the artist Doaa Elasyed, a refugee herself. The Trauerort is made complete by a huge, rough, unpolished stone. The text on the stone reads as follows, in loose translation:
A Place to Mourn:
For all those who cannot visit the graves of their beloved dead.
For all who have moved here from far away, for refugees and migrants.
For all peoples, of all religions, cultures, and languages.
I am not a refugee in Germany (although I sometimes experience myself as a migrant between my country of origin and the other side of the North Atlantic). Yet the sadness of no longer (or very rarely) being able to visit the graves of my beloved dead resonated with me. In addition, since the numbers of migrants continue to be on the rise globally, I wonder whether places like the Trauerorte in Germany are not important to cultivate in other contexts too? How, for example, do our Central and Latin American neighbors who have moved north experience their loss of a public place to mourn their beloved dead in North America? Surely it is no coincidence that online places of mourning have risen so sharply in numbers and internet traffic in recent years. People need space to mourn and to do so visibly, where others become witnesses to this mourning. Our Catholic churches have long attended to that need. Maybe our churches can now widen the space for mourning and the circle of mourners, to include today’s global migrants.