Vending Machines in Zurich: Mourning Edition

As odd as it may sound, I love cemeteries. Roaming around chapels and tombstones is not my favourite hobby -don’t misunderstand me- I’m not into gothic aesthetics and I prefer going there in daylight; nevertheless the sense of calm you experience there most of the time soothes me. Have you ever been to Zurich’s main cemetery, the Sihlfeld Friedhof? It’s a truly beautiful park, with old trees and lots of green lawns, where it’s not rare to find people reading, meditating or even -true story- having a little bbq. Some of the tombstones are real pieces of art, spanning from Art Nouveau to Brutalism and to me reading old names partially covered by ivy and moss has always had an adventure book vibe. 

I used to live close by and during quite the complicated summer, I found myself going there for an evening stroll pretty much every day. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly found a vending machine which wasn’t selling, as I thought at first superficial sight, water or little snacks, but grief-related items. I took lots of pictures, posted, shared with friends: “Only in Switzerland! They really think about everything!”. I was absolutely fascinated.

Later on one of my Instagram posts caught the attention of Lea Hofer, the artist behind the Trauerautomat project (Grief Vending Machine, this the official name), we got in touch and here’s what we’ve been talking about.

IM- What’s the story behind the Trauerautomat project? 

LH- I was a 23 year old design student and after a really emotional course at University, I got very interested in the topic of grief and death. The field shocked and fascinated me at the same time. After realizing it’s a taboo topic, for my Bachelor work I decided to write a trend report about grief and mourning in public spaces and how they could evolve in the future. During my research I went to several Funeral trade fairs in the Netherlands and I was really confronted with a new industry and lifestyle (no pun intended). That’s the moment, on a small train in Utrecht, when the idea popped up in my mind. I think a good Designer should always ask himself “what if?” and not “what is now?”. It all started as a speculative idea, but later on I decided to realize it, physically. Swiss people are hiding this subject in everyday life, so I decided to let people face the topic directly.

IM- How did people react to the project? Do they actually use it? Have you received any criticism for tackling a sometimes-taboo topic?

LH- The reaction was enormous, also due to the fact that it’s easily readable by anyone. It was published in the Swiss free press and opinions were opposing. The vending machine itself is indeed provocative, but the idea has always been to open a discussion about how we deal with grief and not just setting up a machine with objects to console people.
So far the machine has been used a lot since it was installed in summer 2018. I’ve been constantly filling it on a weekly basis. Therefore I deduce that there is a demand in our current society!

IM- The importance to have everything available 24/7: vending machines, food delivery, online shopping: real need of our contemporary life or self-imposed need to be always flexible and on the go?

LH- Well, I think that interpersonal contacts are more and more detached due to technology and machines in general; at the end this project is just showing what is already a reality. The embedded topic is, of course, to slow down and question thoroughly our work-life balance.

IM- What would you like to find in a vending machine? Which is your favorite from the other unexpected ones you can find in Zurich? 

LH- Mhm, funny enough, I don’t think I’m actually using vending machines so much in my daily life. I like the flower machine at Kalkbreite, though.

IM- As far as you know, does something like this exist in any other part of the world?

LH- No I don’t think so.

IM- Any other “Special Vending Machine” project? Or Grief-related?

LH- No nothing planned.

Many thanks Lea!

As far as we know the Trauerautomat has been the only of its kind worldwide: if this controversial project did not make you curious enough, at the entrance of the Sihlfeld Cemetery you can also find an exhibition space with quite a rich agenda of events related to the field. Shedding some respectful light on such emotional topics might not be the easiest approach, but it could help many people to cope with grief and sense of loss. 

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Haruki Murakami

TheTrauerautomat has been operational from Summer 2018 till December 2019 and has now been removed by the artist: not only was the project meant to be temporary, but filling the machine became a bit demanding, too. Food for thought, indeed.

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;