Dying in poverty: The right to a proper funeral

For the poor who have died, the Austrian city of Salzburg organises communal urn burials four times a year. The local street paper Apropos was part of one of the ceremonies, which paid its last respects to 18 of those people, giving them the dignity of a proper send-off.

By Georg Wimmer

Photo courtesy of Asphalt

Even burials have to be scheduled. It used to be that they were dealt with quickly, says the Reverend Richard Weyringer. Sometimes there was very little time remaining when someone had died alone.  In 2018, the local authority in Salzburg made it possible for those who lived – and ultimately died – in poverty to have a grave in the form of an urn burial. Richard Weyringer and his brother, a Catholic deacon, wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. In collaboration with Verena Wengler, the person in charge of local authority burials, they considered how a suitable service might proceed.

The demand for local authority burials was now increasing, and Salzburg was responsible for paying for them. These burials were for people who had nothing to bequeath. Some were only found on forced entry to their homes, others left behind a spouse who could not afford the 2000 Euros for a simple funeral. Also, says Verena Wengler, it is sometimes the case that relatives refuse to pay. “It may be that the father has died and the son says he hasn’t seen him for twenty years and isn’t interested anymore,” she explains. As the person responsible for local authority burials, she says she would never judge anyone harshly on account of this when you can’t know what lies behind such an affirmation. A ceremony to commemorate the officially named ‘communal urn burials’ takes place four times a year and will enable last respects to be paid to several dead at one time.

The last Wednesday in June of last year saw such a ceremony on behalf of 18 such people.

The plan is that on the day, the chapel of rest at the municipal cemetery is discreetly decorated. At the front is a head-height white stand, divided into square cubby-holes, each containing an urn with a name plate. Reverend Weyringer calls out the names of the dead. Relatives or anyone that knows them may step forward and place a tea-light in the cubby. Should no-one step forward, one of the local authority representatives lights a candle. Ladies that make up a three-voiced choir from Flachgau (the local region that includes Salzburg) provide musical accompaniment.

What was unusual that particular day was that all the seats in the chapel were taken and there were even mourners standing in the side aisles. One particular deceased man had been part of the homeless punk scene and was very popular. About 30 people, more than half of the assembled, were there to bid him farewell. There were five names though that received no response.

Unlike normal ceremonies, the attendees don’t know one another, and mourning is not only with regard to one person. There are neighbours, relatives, old friends and social workers. Gabi Huber, a social worker in charge of the volunteer-network, organises regular visits to people who live alone. This is how, many years before, she had come into contact with someone who had now died. She told us the man in question had had a hard time and had lived a solitary life due to his physical disability. The visits by volunteers were his window on the world. Gabi found the urn ceremony to be better than other kinds of burial. “It occurred to me that here we were, most had at least one person to whom they wanted to say farewell, but there were others there too, and in the end the deceased on that day probably had more people to say farewell to them than at most other funerals.”

Translated from German by Louise Thomas

Courtesy of Apropos / International Network of Street Papers

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