Living and Dying in Basel – The Collection of the Hörnli Cemetery

Death, burials and grief are topics often regarded as not suitable for historical or ethnological exhibitions. The only institution in Switzerland devoted entirely to sepulchral culture is the Collection of the Hörnli Cemetery in Riehen, near Basel. Through the engagement with death, the exhibition conveys a lot about the life in and around Basel, about regional customs, faith and traditions.


The Rhine in Basel, Switzerland

Around the middle of the fifteenth century, one of the most important images of the Dance of Death in Europe emerged in Basel


Death in Basel

When an earthquake in Basel called for hundreds of victims in 1356, the city was reportedly associated with death far beyond its borders. During the Middle Ages, Basel was known as the city of death, since here the plague raged a couple of times. Around the middle of the fifteenth century, probably during the time of the Basel Council (1431-1448), one of the most important images of the Dance of Death in Europe emerged: the image of the Totentanz (or Danse Macabre) on the wall of the monastery. In the following years, it served as a model for a series of other Dance of Death images and became one of Basel’s landmarks. [1]

Today, 19 picture fragments of the Dance of Death are still preserved and can be seen at the Historical Museum Basel. The fragments belong to a sequence of images which represented 40 dying persons. Since everyone is equal in death, people of different ages were depicted, with different occupations and of all classes of society. [2] The Dance of Death image at the monastery was so famous that tradesmen had to be able to describe the „Death of Basel“ as proof that they really had been to the city. [3]


Fraternities and Soul Guilds

In the fifteenth century fraternities were formed in Basel, devoting themselves to funeral culture and the worship of saints. Members of the same trade were organized in so-called „Soul Guilds“. In the course of the eighteenth century the importance of these associations and societies finally changed. Particularly in the economic sphere professional groups joined together to form interest groups. One example is the Funeral Society of Basel – Gerbergass-Traggesellschaft, founded in 1800. [4]

Until 1857 the members of the Funeral Society functioned as pallbearers. But following the Basel Funeral Act of 1868 the use of a hearse was made obligatory. From then on the actual function of the pallbearer was abolished. The Funeral Society did not dissolve, however, but was converted into a support fund. [5] In this function, the Funeral Society of Basel continues to the present day, whereby the association now focuses on the social life. With its more than 215-year-old history, the Funeral Society of Basel is now the last surviving society of its kind in the canton.


In the city centre of Basel, Switzerland

Basel still has some beautiful murals, but fragments of the Dance of Death can only be seen at the Historical Museum Basel


The Collection of the Hörnli Cemetery

The Hörnli Collection was founded by a member of the Funeral Society of Basel: Peter Galler. The pensioner, who takes care of the collection on honorary basis, is the exhibition curator, the collection manager, the museum pedagogue and the room keeper – all in one. As an employee of the cemetery he had begun to protect gravestones, urns, and crosses from being destroyed. At the Hörnli Cemetery, which is the largest graveyard in Switzerland, graves can only be kept for about 20 years, according to the cemetery rules. After that they are actually cleared. After Galler had been collecting privately for several years, he was able to set up the Collection Friedhof Hörnli in 1994 by founding a trust.

Today, the collection is housed at the Hörnli Cemetery, somewhat hidden behind the building of Chapel 5. The extensive collection comprises all aspects of Basel’s sepulchral culture. The term (from Latin sepulcrum = burial) refers to the cultural treatment of death and dying. Burial culture as well as funeral rituals play a role here. There are very few museums and collections devoted to this subject in Europe. The Collection of the Hörnli Cemetery is the only Swiss institution of its kind. It documents the last farewell in the Basel area over the centuries, with numerous hearses from different eras, a variety of urns from a wide range of materials as well as garden tools for cemetery work.


Sammlung Friedhof Hörnli

Open every 1st and 3rd Sunday per month, 10 AM – 16 PM
Friedhof Hörnli, Riehen – admission free
further information


>>> This article is based on a text from September 2016, written in connection to the blogger trip #Dubuffet / #LoveBasel. The trip was initiated and funded by the Fondation Beyeler, Art & Design Museums Basel / Basel Tourism.

Pictures: Angelika Schoder – Basel, 2015-2016



[1] Marc Sieber: Basel und der Tod, In: Tragbrüder in Basel. Die Geschichte der „Begräbnisgesellschaft Basel – Gerbergass-Traggesellschaft 1800“, John A. Jeker, Muttenz 2001, 6f

[2] Konrad Witz: Basler Totentanz, Fragment des Herolds. Basel, 1435/1440 – Historisches Museum Basel, Sammlung – Inv. 1870.692

[3] John A. Jeker: Tragbrüder in Basel, 7

[4] ibid., 21

[5] ibid., 47

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