Talking Gravestones of Amrum and Föhr

Dec 11, 2023 0 comments

About 60 km north of Heligoland in the North Sea, off the western coast of Germany, lies the islands of Amrun and Föhr. Part of the North Frisian Islands, Amrun and Föhr are home to a fascinating tradition known as “Sprechende Grabsteine” or “talking gravestones”. Unlike ordinary markers, these gravestones, scattered across various cemeteries on the islands, bear inscriptions that provide insights into the lives and stories of the deceased. Each gravestone is adorned with a carved image or scene representing the person's occupation, achievements, or significant life events.

Talking gravestones on the island of Föhr. Photo credit: E-W/Wikimedia Commons

The origin of this tradition dates back to the 17th century when Amrun and Föhr emerged as important whaling centers. During this period, Dutch and English whaling ships sailing in the Arctic would make stops at Amrun and Föhr to recruit local crews. Many young islanders, some as young as 12 years old, joined these expeditions and, having grown up surrounded by water, showcased exceptional seafaring skills. Some even rose to the ranks of harpooners and ship commanders.

Upon returning home, these intrepid sailors would have many brave stories to share, which were engraved on their tombs once they departed for their heavenly abode. from personal triumphs, a talking gravestone could include detailed information about the origins of the deceased, dates of birth and death, marriage and number of children. Some inscriptions were so extensive that the reverse side of the gravestone had to be utilized to accommodate the complete narrative.

Photo credit: Matthias Süßen/Wikimedia Commons

To craft these talking gravestones, sandstone was sourced from the distant hills of northern Westphalia or Lower Saxony and adorned with intricate carvings of brigs, rowboats, and sloops. Initially, Dutch wood carvers hired from the mainland were responsible for creating these unique memorials. However, as time passed, local ship carpenters and residents developed the necessary skills in stonemasonry, eventually taking over the engraving process.

Also read: The Dark Humor of Sapanta’s Merry Cemetery

The grandest gravestones were once positioned atop the graves of islanders who had participated in the lucrative whaling expeditions to Greenland. Other elegantly carved stones marked the resting places of individuals from the upper class and prosperous families. These monuments were, however, exclusive to the wealthy, given the substantial cost involved. Each engraved letter alone amounted to about 3 gold marks, a considerable expense considering an average individual earned around 10 gold marks annually. In contrast, during a successful whaling season, a ship's captain could bring home approximately 900 marks.

Photo credit: Matthias Süßen/Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, the graves of less affluent individuals were often marked by simpler memorials, such as a red sandstone slab bearing only the essential details of birth and death or a modest wooden cross. This stark contrast in grave markers reflected the socio-economic disparities of the time, with the intricately engraved talking gravestones reserved for those who could afford the expense, particularly those whose lives were entwined with the prosperous whaling ventures.

The talking gravestones on Amrum and Föhr often feature intricate depictions of various ships, including fishing smacks, galiots, tjalks, koffs, brigs, barques, whalers, and armed cargo ships (Handelsfregatten). Contrary to the assumption that these carvings exclusively commemorated sailors, the ships symbolized the metaphorical journey of life. When depicted anchored in a harbor, the ships conveyed the end of life's voyage. Notable examples of personalized carvings include a Dutch windmill on the gravestone of Erk Knudten, a seafarer turned miller, and a man in a Sunday suit on the marker of Hark Knudten, the church sacristan.

Photo credit: Matthias Süßen/Wikimedia Commons

Symbolism extends to floral motifs on gravestones, where flowers are thought to represent a full and fulfilled life. However, broken stalks signify deceased relatives who passed away earlier. These artistic and symbolic representations on the gravestones provided a visual narrative of the individual's life and experiences.

As the 19th century progressed, economic hardships befell the islanders, leading to a decline in the creation of these distinctive talking gravestones. By the early 1800s, fewer of these memorials were produced. The decline further accelerated with the aftermath of the Second Schleswig War in 1864. Amrum underwent a period of cooperative rule by Prussia and Austria before becoming part of the Kingdom of Prussia after Prussia's victory over Austria in 1866. Subsequently, in 1871, Prussia was assimilated into the newly unified German Empire.

Photo credit: Matthias Süßen/Wikimedia Commons

The changing political landscape, coupled with evolving aesthetic preferences, had a lasting impact on the fate of the talking gravestones. The Wilhelmine rulers, who took over in the late 19th century, held disdain for the perceived disorderliness of the old cemetery in Nebel on Amrum. In their efforts to impose order, they replaced the meandering paths with straight walks and incorporated some talking gravestones into the cemetery walls. Unfortunately, exposure to the elements led to the weathering of these stones, rendering some illegible over time. This marked the end of an era for the "Sprechende Grabsteine" tradition, leaving behind a unique but fading testament to the islanders' rich maritime history and cultural heritage.

Visitors to Amrum can see these gravestones at St. Clemens Church cemetery in the village of Nebel. In Föhr, talking gravestones can be found in the cemeteries of St. Laurentii church in Süderende, St. Johannes church in Nieblum, and St. Nikolai church in Boldixum.


Photo credit: E-W/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Matthias Süßen/Wikimedia Commons


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