Germany’s only funeral clown just wants people to rethink death

FILED - The clown Kaala Knuffl holds balloons in a cemetery in Germany. She's not out of place here - Kaala Knuffl offers graveside services. Photo: Nicolas Armer/dpa
FILED - The clown Kaala Knuffl holds balloons in a cemetery in Germany. She's not out of place here - Kaala Knuffl offers graveside services. Photo: Nicolas Armer/dpa

(dpa) – In some cultures, death is not something to be feared or something unusual. German culture is not one of them.

That’s why Kaala Knuffl makes for a strange figure.

Clutching white balloons, while wearing a red nose, the woman dressed as a clown walks down a row of gravestones and wooden crosses.

She hasn’t taken a wrong turn – the cemetery is her workplace.

Kaala Knuffl is a professional funeral clown. She doesn’t only comfort the mourning, but she also plays the violin, juggles, improvises, gives a speech – or simply stands in the background.

Kaala Knuffl’s real name is Birgit Sauerschell, a psychologist.

In 2007, she completed basic training as a clown, and since then she has been working in hospitals to make severely ill children smile, or has been performing at family parties and in nursing homes.

“A clown isn’t only funny, she’s also sensitive and emotional,” the 56-year-old says. About two years ago, an idea hit her: What would happen if you link two apparent opposites, grief and humor?

Ilka Kuhlmann and Gabriele Arnoldt were happy to have Kaala Knuffl’s support when they organized a “memorial party” after the death of their mother, explicitly avoiding the term “mourning ceremony.”

“Our beloved mum never complained, she was always funny and often covered up sadness and pain with a smile and good spirits. Just like a clown: You expect her to make everyone laugh and be funny all the time – even though things often look different inside,” they explain.

Their mother loved balloons, and they let a bunch of them fly during her 70th and 80th birthdays. Kaala Knuffl filled balloons with gas during the “memorial party” and handed them out to the guests.

“Since my sister and I wouldn’t have been able to do it, it was clear that Kaala would take on the task,” Ilka Kuhlmann says.

“Everyone stepped outside and watched the spectacle, which spoke for itself,” she says. Dozens of balloons rose into the sky – accompanied by attendees’ personal thoughts about the deceased 81-year-old.

“A clown changes the atmosphere,” Sauerschell says. If someone asked her to dance at their funeral, or run around the grave carrying a football, she would, she says. “Open-minded – and a bit cuckoo” – this is how Sauerschell describes her clown identity on her website.

“In a society that values self-realization and a self-determined life above all, a person’s funeral should be as individual as possible and do justice to the life of the deceased,” says Simon Walter, from the Association for German Mourning Culture.

It’s important that memorial services and burials are held according to the ideas of the deceased and those left behind, he says, adding that in this case, there are almost no limits to creativity.

Johannes Minkus from the Bavarian Evangelical-Lutheran Church has not seen a clown at a funeral yet. However, he imagines that the role could be a good tool “to express feelings in a ‘protected’ manner.”

After all, to help relatives endure the pain after the loss of a loved one is also the aim of pastors.

“In our society, grief and pain are often sought to be ‘overcome’ as quickly as possible,” Minkus says.

Pastors therefore try to encourage mourners to accept their grief and pain, “as well as to accept that it takes time to process loss.”

Sauerschell is not looking at all to “push away” grief and pain by taking on the role of clown, she emphasizes.

“Grief has its own right. But it helps to feel and experience the other side of life from time to time,” she says.

A clown doesn’t focus on grief and hopelessness, she adds.

“A clown says ‘yes,’ keeps on going and doesn’t remain in standstill. She can help to change perspectives, which can be helpful during the mourning process – and healing.”

So far she has been booked for two funerals. The concept isn’t met with approval everywhere, she says. “Many don’t know about the funeral clown yet, and many people don’t believe the concept works. This is a conservative region,” she says about her native Bavaria.

There are no statistics on the number of funeral or mourning clowns in Germany – if there are any others besides Kaala Knuffl at all.

“We would like it if more and more people were open to new things in the future,” Ilka Kuhlmann and Gabriele Arnoldt say.

The clown attending their mother’s “memorial party” hadn’t been a disturbance at all, they say.

“Kaala’s outfit and her style turned tears of mourning into tears of joy. Our mother watched from above and surely had to smile.”

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