The frieze inscription on the Krematorium Sihlfeld, one of the oldest crematories in Switzerland, reads: “Flamme, löse das Vergängliche auf. Befreit ist das Unsterbliche”, translated as “Flame, dissolve the ephemeral. Be the immortal released”.
With its neoclassicist elements the crematory, surrounded by a scenic chestnut lined alley, monumentalizes the process of incineration, and it sculpts into stone a, if not the, transcendental resolution to terrestrial human death.
As a consequence, the symbolisms and institutional practices concerning human loss, and eventually grief, tend to be equally parochial, at odds with our contemporary world and everyday life.
At least, this was a foundational observation for Zurich-based designer Lea Hofer, who was the creator of “Der Trauerautomat”.
For this unusual installation, she repurposed an old vending machine by redesigning its surface and filling it with various items that grieving loved ones might need before, during, or after a funeral ceremony.
There are tissues, rosaries, condolence cards, candles and even a tiny music box playing “You Are My Sunshine”, but also more unconventional things like soap bubbles, chalk crayons or artefacts designed by local artists, and prices for these objects range from 1 to 20 Swiss Francs.
Some of these products, expecially the most unusual, have been met with irritation by passers-by who, according to local media, said the artwork to be “irreverent”. Instead of “disrespectful”, Lea Hofer likes to think of these things as “de-contextualised”. She also explained that the objects are supposed to evoke a reaction in the audience, to interrogate their notion of grief.
“Der Trauerautomat”, translating something like “The Mourning Machine”, was set up in 2018 at at one of the main entrances of Sihlfeld Cemetery, locally Friedhof Sihlfeld. The burial ground, that includes also the monumental crematory mentioned above, it is also Zurich’s largest public park.
And the vending machine, though it may seem a macabre amenity at first look, the idea behind author’s work is to destigmatize mourning and grief and open up a public discussion on what is still a taboo topic in Switzerland, but not only.
In any case, Der Trauerautomat is part of the Friedhof Forum at the Sihlfeld cemetery, Switzerland’s first cultural service center that offers information and discussion around death, burials, and mourning.
The forum’s so-called “office of the last journey” also hosts temporary exhibitions on these arguments. For example, a recent exhibition displayed a collection of objects left behind by the dead, as a tangible approach to talking about death and loss.