Sepulchral museum, Kassel

  (  for German speakers)  - darkometer rating:  3 -

A unique museum in Kassel in central Germany which is devoted to the topic of death, or more precisely: to how different societies and cultures deal with it. A large part of this revolves around funeral traditions, but the museum goes beyond this and also picks up issues of cultural differences in mourning, concepts of an afterlife and things like that. 
More background info: Kassel's "Museum für Sepulkralkultur" ('museum of sepulchral culture') as the official name goes, founded in 1992, is one of the world's few museums dedicated to the subject of funerals and funereal culture, i.e. how different societies have dealt with death and burials over time (see also the funeral museum in Vienna, and Hamburg's equivalent at Ohlsdorf cemetery).
The emphasis may be on European burial cultures, but the scope is nevertheless quite wide – including sepulchral rites from far-flung corners of the world. For instance, the "Dia de los Muertos" or 'Day of the Dead' on the 2nd of November is celebrated at the museum too (see Mexico). The (black) humorous side of dealing with the topic of death and dying is covered too – and the museum makes a big point of saying that despite the general topic, laughter is not at all completely forbidden here! That's as should be!
Even more unusually, the sepulchral museum in Kassel also has a special emphasis on introducing youngsters to these rather grim themes of death and funerals! Special kiddie-friendly workshops are organized; and they offer a specially developed "didactic entity" called "Vergissmeinnicht" ('forget-me-not') – a mobile "package" of educational materials that comes in the form of a coffin on wheels, painted in bright kiddie colours, which is full of objects and playthings related to the topic, all designed for 5 to 12-year-olds. This really must be unique … maybe it can also serve as an introductory point for future would-be dark tourists, to get them early on …?
The name "sepulchral", by the way, derives from the Latin "sepulcrum" – 'grave', 'burial place'. Maybe the choice of the Latinate term is another aspect of the museum's ambitions to take the scare out of funerals and death …
What there is to see: from the moment you arrive at the entrance you realize that this museum features a perhaps surprisingly non-grim take on the subject of death. Most of the permanent exhibition is housed in the modern wing, whose main hall is airy and flooded with light. No gloom and doom atmosphere here then. On the contrary. Of course most of the artefacts on display do have that grim element, but it is clearly discernible that the museum's central approach is to offset this with lighter and more positive notes.
Even the museum's very location supports this: high on a ridge overlooking the city spreading out below, set near a park, and with a lovely, lofty outdoor terrace by the museum café.
In the very courtyard of this part (in the old wing), however, the first reminders of the museum's darker topic bring the visitor back down to earth, if not beneath it, as it were … For instance there are a couple of hearses, from simple carts to a contemporary automobile one.
Coffins feature a lot in this wing of the permanent exhibition too – including Jewish and Muslim ones. More durable models contrast with the model of an Austrian "Klappsarg" – which was just a temporary transport coffin with a hatch in the bottom, through which the deceased were eventually dumped into mass graves (see funeral museum Vienna, and St Marx cemetery). Old and new are covered as well. Piles of intricately painted 18th century caskets contrast with an ultra-modern one in an oval shape made from high-tech materials.
Easily the most entertaining, even funniest exhibit in this context has to be the "fantasy coffin" from Ghana. In this case the design is that of a colourful chicken, or hen, rather. It represents a unique funeral culture that the Ga people of Ghana have made popular since the 1950s, in which the deceased are buried in custom-made works of art that in some way are representative of what they stood for, or what hobbies they had, etc., in real life. Hen-design coffins such as the one at the museum are frequently chosen for women as a reference to particularly motherly, family-overseeing traits they displayed in life.
Also in this section are colourful funeral items from countries as far away from each other as Tibet or Mexico – the latter's Day of the Dead tradition is also covered. As is the tradition of burial objects in China that even include obviously fake products such as packets of cigarettes in familiar designs (but with slightly altered brand name spellings).
Most of these items are fairly self-explanatory. It's a bit different with the sections about roadside crosses, obituaries, and black-humoured cartoons about death. Since all labels are in German only, you won't get the significance of these parts unless you have a sufficiently good grasp of the language.
Back on more self-explanatory, and grim, territory are the display cabinets with mourning clothing (black is the theme colour here, of course) or the collection of urns. An adjacent room has some arty exhibits relating to famous dead … including Napoleon (cf. Les Invalides in Paris), then you enter the new wing.
In this other, larger wing in the modern annexe building, a lot of space is given to the topic of cemetery history and various forms of the art of monuments and tombstone design. Classic examples from bygone eras – especially the increasingly elaborate and expensive representational tomb-art of the 19th century – are well represented, but also the whole development of cemetery layout, including cultural influences from colonial times (tombs in the form of pyramids, etc.).
This is complemented by some very modern forms of burial technology – from the comparatively ordinary burial-at-sea mode to the almost unbelievable "space burials" that apparently are now on offer – by which a small portion of the deceased's ashes contained in a small metal tube are sent into orbit … or even beyond, such as all the way to the Moon. (Various deceased astronauts have been honoured this way – as well as the astronomer Eugene Shoemaker – see Barringer Crater). Another high-tech variant is that of turning parts of the ashes of a deceased person (under pressure and heat) into a synthetic diamond!   
Upstairs, there are two more levels in the modern part of the museum that are reserved for regularly changing temporary exhibitions which are more or less thematically linked with the museum's main theme. At the time of my visit in May 2012, this link was a most drastic one: the temporary exhibition's theme was that of the death penalty through the ages, from gruesome medieval techniques to the present day. Gallows, burning at the stake, beheadings, the lot … Also on display there was a replica of the famous Tollund Man. Even in this exhibition context there were some examples of simply stunning "black humour" – such as a kind of slot machine called "The English Execution", which apparently showed some scale-model figures performing a hanging if you inserted the required coin …
The museum also has a shop with loads of books on all things related to its topic – more often than not on either a humorous or an artistic theme (almost all of this in German only, yet again). Outside the museum proper, you can spot an original single segment of the Berlin Wall in the park – as a kind of symbol for the "death" of an era, that of the Cold War, as well as a state, namely the GDR.
All in all this is a totally exceptional place – unmatched in size or breadth of scope by any other such museum – and as such it should be better known amongst dark tourists. As it is, though, its German-language focus makes it difficult for foreigners to get much out of it other than purely visual impressions. So from an international perspective at least it will probably remain a rather exotic niche offering. Still worth the detour, though.
Location: at Weinbergstraße 25–27, about a mile (1.5 km) from the central train station, near the centre of Kassel, northern Hesse, Germany.
Google maps locator:[51.3092,9.4877]
Access and costs: slightly off the well-trodden tourist trails, but not difficult to get to; and not too expensive either.
Details: to get to the museum on foot, e.g. from Kassel's central station (Hauptbahnhof), first walk down Kurfürstenstraße, then Ständeplatz and left down Fünffensterstraße to the City Hall (Rathaus) and beyond this right, past the Elisabeth-Krankenhaus hospital, on Obere Karlstraße, then left into Weinbergstraße, which makes a sharp right and continues up the hill. The museum is the first building beyond the landscaped park on the left.
Note that most long-distance trains don't go to the central station but only to Wilhelmshöhe. From there you can get a tram (line 1, 2 or 3) to Weigelstraße, then walk up Amalienstraße, left into Humboldtstraße and then right into Weinbergstraße.
If you decide to drive it, note the many one-way streets in Kassel. Coming from Fünffensterstraße, you can only get onto Obere Karlstraße via Friedrichstraße, for example. At least there are parking places (pay-and-display – fairly cheap right by the museum and along Weinbergstraße.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., open late until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays; closed Mondays.
Admission: 6 EUR (4 EUR for students etc.); guided tours are more costly, ca. 55-70 EUR (plus admission) for up to 10 persons (concessions apply for students/larger groups); foreign-language guiding costs another extra 15 EUR on top.  
Time required: depends crucially on whether you can read German; if so, you can easily spend two hours or so in here, otherwise you'll likely to be out again much sooner.
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing specific within Kassel itself; although the museum offers thematic guided tours on its type of topics in the city – but these are specialist offers more for locals than for foreign tourists.
Those in search of something similar to the sepulchral museum in Kassel would have to travel far: for instance to the funeral museum in Vienna – or even as far as Texas, USA, for Houston's National Museum of Funeral History.
Much closer, however, in the countryside not far to the east of Kassel, you can find a few of the memorial museums/sites that commemorate the former inner-German border, i.e. the Cold-War-era Iron Curtain that ran right through the middle of Germany. One of the better ones, Schifflersgrund, is only about an hour's drive away.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Kassel itself is perhaps not the prettiest of central German places. Its architectural blandness is – as so often in Germany – an indirect result of the massive aerial bombings during WWII (Kassel was – and still is – an important base for arms production industries) and hasty rebuilding after the war, with little consideration for aesthetics. Only about a quarter of the older housing survived.
However, the Wilhelmshöhe complex of a palace with large landscaped parks and grand monument (esp. the giant "Hercules") still serve as the premier landmarks of Kassel. Also part of the complex is an "English" castle called Löwenburg – a huge mock medieval folly that the super rich aristocracy of the 18th century indulged in. Another stately relic of those days is the Orangerie in the large English garden called Karlsaue by the river closer to the city centre. But even so, Kassel is hardly a tourist magnet in its own right
Every five years, however, the city becomes the global focus of attention of a very special kind: the Kassel-based 100-day "documenta" is the largest and most important festival of modern/contemporary art in the world. It's often controversial but always on a grand scale and has featured the greatest names in modern art. Though most works are installations specifically set up for the documenta, and intended only for the duration of the festival, a few pieces have even remained as part of the cityscape, such as the giant pickaxe by the river (a work by Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg).
  • Sepulchralmuseum 01 - entranceSepulchralmuseum 01 - entrance
  • Sepulchralmuseum 02 - Berlin Wall segment outsideSepulchralmuseum 02 - Berlin Wall segment outside
  • Sepulchralmuseum 03 - courtyardSepulchralmuseum 03 - courtyard
  • Sepulchralmuseum 04 - hearseSepulchralmuseum 04 - hearse
  • Sepulchralmuseum 05 - scytheSepulchralmuseum 05 - scythe
  • Sepulchralmuseum 06 - model of a Klappsarg - a coffin with a hatch at the bottomSepulchralmuseum 06 - model of a Klappsarg - a coffin with a hatch at the bottom
  • Sepulchralmuseum 07 - historic hearseSepulchralmuseum 07 - historic hearse
  • Sepulchralmuseum 08 - attireSepulchralmuseum 08 - attire
  • Sepulchralmuseum 09a - coffins and other exhibitsSepulchralmuseum 09a - coffins and other exhibits
  • Sepulchralmuseum 09b - fantasy coffin from GhanaSepulchralmuseum 09b - fantasy coffin from Ghana
  • Sepulchralmuseum 10 - famous deadSepulchralmuseum 10 - famous dead
  • Sepulchralmuseum 11 - tombstone engravingSepulchralmuseum 11 - tombstone engraving
  • Sepulchralmuseum 12 - main hallSepulchralmuseum 12 - main hall
  • Sepulchralmuseum 13 - another historic hearseSepulchralmuseum 13 - another historic hearse
  • Sepulchralmuseum 14 - diamondSepulchralmuseum 14 - diamond
  • Sepulchralmuseum 15 - signsSepulchralmuseum 15 - signs
  • Sepulchralmuseum 16 - temporary exhibitionSepulchralmuseum 16 - temporary exhibition
  • Sepulchralmuseum 17 - execution as child playSepulchralmuseum 17 - execution as child play
  • Sepulchralmuseum 18 - death galoreSepulchralmuseum 18 - death galore
  • Sepulchralmuseum 19 - view over the citySepulchralmuseum 19 - view over the city

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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