Cult of the dead

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Coffin in the crypt of the cemetery chapel in Riegel am Kaiserstuhl

The cult of the dead is understood to mean any form of more or less ritualized expression of devotion, esteem or admiration for the deceased. It is widespread at tombs , by means of which the reputation and memory of the deceased should be preserved for posterity. Cults of the dead are obvious forms of a culture of remembrance . Funeral rituals and ceremonies are therefore found in any culture where more than tool use is common.

In Christianity there are the coffin of a deceased, the wake , the church funeral , the memorial days of the saints , the memorial of the deceased in Holy Mass , as well as the days on which the deceased is commemorated in the church year in particular, the memorial of All Souls and the Dead Sunday in close relation to the memorial system. Memorial being denotes the ritual commemoration of the dead; it can be defined as part of the cult of the dead. Memorial research is now an integral part of medieval studies .

Definition of terms

The term cult of the dead is less general than the term cult of ancestors . This also includes the worship of mythical ancestors, about whom we only know from stories, legends or sagas. Every ancestor cult therefore includes a death cult; conversely, not every cult of the dead is also an ancestor cult.

According to the common view, the cult of the dead and the ancestors presuppose the acceptance or idea of ​​the continued existence of the deceased and ancestors in a different form, in a different way and in different places - a continuation or continued existence after death . In the course of time, such ideas could have developed into more or less complex belief systems and ideas about the hereafter . However, this cultural psychological hypothesis is not compelling. Funeral burials can also be explained by mere affective attachment to the deceased. Only grave goods , in particular food and money, suggest that those who survived must have assumed that the deceased needed such means of subsistence to continue to live in the underworld or in the realm of the dead.

Old Egypt

In ancient Egypt, people believed that they would continue to exist after death in a hereafter. This further life after the end of earthly life was one of the highest goals of the Egyptians, to which it already in this side prepared life. In this way they provided for the mummification of the bodies, believing that the dead needed their shell to survive. The funeral rituals served to pave the way for them to the afterlife. Grave goods should make their stay there as pleasant as possible. These included, for example, figures of workers or servants who were supposed to cultivate the fields in the afterlife for them. Texts were carved into such figures to guarantee their help to the dead. Regular food and drink offerings were also offered to the dead . Letters were even written to the dead. Amulets were found in the bandages of the mummies to protect the deceased. For a successful life in the hereafter, however, it was necessary to have led a just and decent life on earth. The heart of the deceased was placed on the scales of the judgment of the dead , which decided his fate in the afterlife.

Egyptian mythology

According to the traditions of Egyptian mythology , humans are composed of six beings. There are also two names for the body during lifetime and one for the corpse. The three worldly, mortal parts include the body covering ( Chet ), the name ( Ren ) and the shadow ( Schut ). In addition, there were three spiritual, immortal aspects in man: Ka , Ba and Ah . The Ka provides people with the nourishment they need in the hereafter. It resembles him like a brother. The Ba is connected to the human heart, leaves the body after death and can only return to it when it recognizes it again (if it is still preserved). With the Ba, the personality of the person also disappears. With its help, people can see the world of the living like a bird a day. In the oh these parts united through the body shell, and the dead now belong to the realm of the gods as an eternal soul. The grave was like a dwelling for the dead.

Middle East

Religious customs in honor of the dead are also known from Amorite and Hurrian places in ancient Near East . For example, the Qatna royal family apparently had recurring feasts in the family tomb directly below the throne room. Elsewhere, celebrations are also known that are also related to magical kišpu rituals.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans practiced forms of cult of the dead. The Parentalia (also dies parentales ) were in the Roman calendar as the Nundinum period, the "days of the cult of the dead", which were dedicated to the deceased parents (parentes) and other family ancestors . The commemorative character of the soul festival is underlined by the fact that it originally took place towards the end of the year. The Parentalia began at noon on February 13 and ended on 21 February . On February 22nd, the “family reconciliation festivalCaristia followed .

The separated souls ( lares , manes , lemures , larvae ) were an eminently important and multifaceted topic in Roman religiosity ; on the one hand, a feast of the dead like the lemuria had unmistakably apotropaic features, on the other hand the parentalia reinforced the ties with the deceased family members (for more see article Parentalia ).

The inscriptions on Roman tombstones were often very personal, they were meant to make the dead unforgettable (see Roman inscriptions ).

Modern times

France (1789 to 1870)

Robespierre requested in the same speech in which he saw the death of King Louis XVI. called for a memorial to the stormers of the Tuileries (August 10, 1792). It was also erected temporarily out of wood.

Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006) wrote:

“With the republican cult of the dead, violent death itself becomes a political title of legitimacy. The soldiers, previously counted among the people's yeast and not capable of being monuments, move up to become heroes and martyrs when they have fallen in war or civil war - i.e. always on the just side. Ranks do not count here: every soldier is a general, every general a soldier. Everyone has the same responsibility: every citizen a soldier, every soldier a citizen - as were the slogans that were exchanged between Paris and the municipalities in order to erect a memorial to the fallen, with the memory of each individual. That was patriotisme en action, which should never be forgotten about the death of the individual. Immortaliser, éterniser, perpétuer - these are the incantations to transfer immortality, which until now, if at all, was in God's hands, into the memory of the constantly remembering nation. "

German princes adopted the republican cult of the dead in the fight against French expansion policy. The oldest monument still preserved today, which commemorates all fallen soldiers (including officers) by name, dates from 1793 ( Hessendenkmal ). The Prussian king dedicated it to the Hessian soldiers who had recaptured Frankfurt.

The republican cult of the dead, just setting the soldats obscurs - forerunners of soldat inconnu (Unknown Soldier) - monuments, has been permanently installed in Prussia since 1813. The king ordered plaques to be hung up in all churches with the names of all those who had fallen. This custom was also imitated in southern Germany and has existed since then - first the Levée en masse , then the general conscription . (see also Tomb of the Unknown Soldier )

After the German Wars of Unification and the Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) numerous war memorials were erected, both in France and in the German Empire . The growing revanchism in France after 1871 promoted the cult of the dead. The increasing nationalization of the soldiers and / or their ideological programming led to a rigorous separation of the corpses, as in the times of the Crusades.

Personality cult

Examples: From 1933 onwards, the Nazi regime organized a cult of the dead around the 16 men who had died in the failed November coup in 1923 (for more information, see Memorial Day for the movement ; they were called martyrs in Nazi terminology ).

Some of the deceased who were perceived as important to the culture of a country are forgotten relatively quickly after their death; other is long thought. Examples of the latter: the Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues († 1999, "Queen of Fado"), the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (famous since 1993 for a medley from Somewhere over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World ) and the Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna ( 1960-1994).

Princess Diana (1961–1997) is still regarded by many as the "Queen of Hearts".

Since the death of the FPÖ politician Jörg Haider in 2008, there has been a certain " Haider cult "; People come to his grave (especially on the anniversary of his death).

See also


  • Jan Assmann (ed.): Farewell to the dead. Mourning rituals in a cultural comparison . Wallmann, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-89244-951-1 , content (PDF; 230 kB) .
  • Jürgen Boettcher / Jutus H. Ulbricht: ›The way of the new Germany still went through graves‹. Insights into the political cult of the dead in Weimar . In: Ursula Härtl / Burkhard Stenzel / Justus H. Ulbricht: "Here, here is Germany ..." From national cultural concepts to National Socialist cultural policy . Published on behalf of the Buchenwald Memorial and the Weimar Classic Foundation. Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-89244-279-7 , pp. 57-82.
  • Patrick Eiden / Nacim Ghanbari / Tobias Weber / Martin Zillinger (eds.): Cults of the dead. Literary and cultural boundaries between life and death . Campus, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2006, ISBN 978-3-593-38096-4 , content (PDF; 232 kB) .
  • Ulrich Enderwitz: The religious cult . Ça ira, Freiburg i. Br. 1991, ISBN 3-924627-27-4 , (Ulrich Enderwitz: Reichtum und Religion 2).
  • Ulrich Volp: Death and ritual in the Christian communities of antiquity . Brill, Leiden et al. 2002, ISBN 90-04-12671-6 , ( Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae (SVigChr) 65, ISSN  0920-623X ), (also: Bonn, Univ., Diss., 2000/2001).

Web links

Wiktionary: cult of the dead  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. a b c The republican cult of the dead from 1789 to 1870
  2. The period from 1870 to 1945 (R. Koselleck)
  3. 5th anniversary of Jörg Haider's death: The rubble of power , on