Waldbeerdigung / Forest Funeral

Tenna, Switzerland 2022

Centuries ago, the ancient forests of the Safien Valley were cleared to make way for pasture, and the resulting lumber gave form to local villages. While this land use has sustained the community throughout the ages, woodland ecosystems are now being turned to as essential partners in mitigating the most harmful effects of climate change, posing questions around the future of local forestry management.

This participatory procession acts as a celebration of the forest’s contributions to the community and a meditation on its sacrifices.

Outside a medieval church in the heart of the village of Tenna, flowers adorn the gravestones of souls passed. The size of this small cemetery conceals its magnitude; generations of villagers have been continuously buried amongst one another here in a promise of community, even in death.

How would the forest want to be commemorated?

Drawing from Hindu funerary practices, in which the body is draped in garlands of marigolds prior to cremation, pinecones foraged from the forest floor have been wrapped onto tree stumps in a deforested glade. These seed-bearing shrouds have been woven together with kalava, a ritual thread customarily used to impart blessings and protection.

Journeying to the glade, members of our group walk in silence amid the sound of borrowed local cowbells, an allusion to funeral tolls and to the cattle whose introduction first shaped the land. Upon their arrival, the participants are handed wildflowers and rowan berries gathered from surrounding meadows to weave their own offerings onto the fallen trees. As they dry and decay, these adornments function as memento mori, reminders of our own transience.

Sowing seeds in the course of their deterioration, the foraged offerings facilitate the growth of a renewed woodland ecosystem. Among them, the trees, too, will slowly decompose, their bodies enriching the soil and nourishing this latent regeneration. The forest also continues to nurture its community, even in death.

Mixed media (pinecones, rowan berries, wildflowers, kalava thread), 15 min

Photographs: Gita Khandagle, Gabriela Gerber, Johannes Hedinger, Aleida van Dijk and Mirja Busch

Project for Alps Art Academy at the Institute for Land & Environmental Art