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Death With Dignity: German Collective Reburies Deceased Migrants in Berlin

Burial in Berlin of a Syrian refugee and her daughter who drowned right off the coast of Sicily. (image via instagram/christianlehner)
Burial in Berlin of a Syrian refugee and her daughter who drowned right off the coast of Sicily. (image via instagram/christianlehner)

This morning in Berlin, a small crowd gathered around an open cemetery grave to pay their respects to a 60-year-old Syrian refugee. He had died trying to cross choppy Mediterranean waters to safety in Europe, a victim not only of his country’s brutal war but also of Europe’s crushing immigration laws.

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The German art collective Center for Political Beauty is reburying migrants in Berlin (Image courtesy of Center for Political Beauty)

The man was the third migrant to have been reburied in the German capital this week by the Center for Political Beauty (CPB), an art collective that has been aggressively protesting Europe’s treatment of migrants. It plans to bury many more, hoping the burials will help “tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion” and force the German government to take note of the dead.

“[The migrants] wanted to come to Germany,” CPB member Joschka Härdtner told Hyperallergic. “It is because of German politicians why they could reach their aim only in coffins.”

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Blood spills out of a cooler that holds migrant bodies (Image courtesy of Center for Political Beauty)

Wars in North Africa and West Asia have recently driven an unprecedented number of migrants to flee toward Europe, often in over-crowded, rickety wooden boats. In the first half of 2014 alone, an estimated 1,800 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe — 30 times more than during the same period last year. Meanwhile, European Union policies on immigration and refugees remain restrictive. Amnesty International has dubbed its member states — of which Germany is the most powerful — a “fortress” bent on keeping out the have-nots.

Europe’s refusal to adequately deal with the crisis comes through in its disgraceful treatment of migrants’ dead bodies. As CPB notes on its website, bodies have been thrown in unmarked, mass graves or piled up in cooling chambers and warehouses, where they sometimes languish for months. Last year, German President Joachim Gauck even admitted that “the pictures of coffins in the hangars of Lampedusa airport do not fit the image that Europeans have of themselves.”

The CPB hopes to right at least a fraction of those wrongs by exhuming bodies and giving them proper funerals funded through Indiegogo. “Everybody who was [at the funerals] felt these people were buried peacefully and with dignity,” Härdtner recalled. “[The families] are very relieved now, because they know their beloved ones are buried in a dignified way.”

Härdtner said the government has not answered the collective’s invitations to attend, and chairs reserved for Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister of Interior Thomas de Maiziere have remained empty.

But they might be forced to respond after Sunday, when CPB will lead a “March of the Willing” directly to the manicured green lawn of the German Chancellery. It will be headed by excavators armed with demolition equipment. Together they will begin laying the foundations for “an unprecedented burial ground: a memorial for the victims of Europe’s military isolation under a grand arch that says, ‘To the Unknown Immigrants.'”

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Rendering of the Monument to the Unknown Immigrant (Image courtesy of the Center for Political Beauty)

While reburying migrants in front of the chancellery is a powerful social and political gesture, CPB has also labeled the project “performance art of an unprecedented magnitude.” To some, billing the reburials as art may seem strange — possibly even exploitative — but Härdtner says that’s not the group’s intention. “Of course we considered that. I would say it is a humanistic end that we are striving to together with the families,” he said. “The core of the project is dignity in death, so you should see them not as objects, but as the subjects of this whole thing.”

As one might guess, CPB is already facing problems with law enforcement. “They are scared so they want to forbid us to bring the digger and corpses,” Härdtner said. “We are currently working on how to handle the situation.” The police have already removed two mock migrant graves installed on public sidewalks, which were seemingly spurred by CPB’s work.

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