Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bremen bleikeller

For more than 300 years, Bremen Cathedral in northern Germany - which dates back to the 8th c. - has drawn visitors from around the world. They have come not to worship, but to see the 8 mummies on display (1st image, an illustration c. 1910). They are located in the "Bleikeller" beneath the nave, which had long had a reputation for preserving the bodies of the dead. The glass-topped coffins contain the mummified remains of 2 17th c. Swedish officers, an English countess, a murdered student, and a local pauper (2nd image, one of these as it looks now).

Norddeutscher Lloyd wrote about them in Across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton, Havre, and Bremen, 1879:
"The lovers of the marvellous will be able to gratify their curiosity by visiting the mummies contained in an old cellar under the church, in which the lead for the roof was melted, and which has the quality of preventing decay. Some of the mummies are said to be four hundred years old."

This passage appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 2, edited by Henry Mills Alden, 1850-1851:
"We have, however, ourselves seen the bodies preserved in the cathedral church of Bremen. This crypt is called the Bleikeller or lead-cellar, for what precise reason we do not remember. It is not entirely underground, but enjoys a certain dubious daylight The mummies here are contained in rough wooden coffins, and are attired in the usual vestments of the dead, but with their faces exposed. Each has its history, which the respectable lady who showed them to us duly recounted removing each coffin-lid as she did so and replacing it as she passed to another."

Charles Carroll Fulton recounted a visit to the "bleikeller" in Europe Viewed through American Spectacles, 1873:
"Its greatest attraction to strangers is the exhibition of several mummies, the oldest having been for 400 years, and the most recent for 60 years, in an undecayed condition....The corpses bear no evidence of decay as in the case of the Egyptian mummies, but carry on their countenances the appearance of recent death, except that the dust of ages has somewhat discolored them. There are about a dozen bodies laid out in their coffins The flesh feels like parchment and the cheeks of an old countess...look and feel quite plump One is the remains of an English officer shot in a duel 90 years ago, with a bullet hole in his breast and a shattered shoulder A corpulent old general is still corpulent....The exhibition of these curiosities gives an income to the church...and is quite a valuable source of revenue. It is not everybody who can expect to be so remunerative after he has given up the ghost."

No one has ever been able to explain exactly why bodies mummified in this Bremen basement, but presumably it had good air circulation. It was 1st used to store the bodies of itinerant craftsmen who were expected to be shipped home. By the 17th c., the nobility were making this church crypt their last resting place.

You can tour the Bremen Cathedral bleikeller right now from where you sit.

This post was inspired by an article about mummies in the current issue of The Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly.

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