We returned from Hamburg to our temporary home in Lueneburg on July 4, 2015, after visiting friends in Hamburg. It was a normal trip on a German train until…it came to a stop at about 9:30 pm. There was a confused silence among the passengers, until the loud speaker finally announced an indefinite delay because something had been thrown on the tracks.
The mystery solved itself a few minutes later. There was a suicide in front of one of the trains, and the emergency equipment had arrived and closed the tracks going both ways. As a result, the tracks were closed, and our train would be returning to Hamburg, and not going forward to Lueneburg. What to do? A number of us (probably 100+) piled out of the train, and began calling friends and taxis to take us onwards. We were lucky enough to get a share in an eight person taxi about 45 minutes later, which took us home with six other people who shared our fate, and destination. Total cost was 15 Euro.
This is the second time in Germany I’ve been delayed by suicides in front of train. When I googled the phenomenon, I found out that Germany has the highest percentages of “suicides by train.” It is 7% of suicides, which works out to a few hundred per year. This is higher than other countries with extensive train systems, and it means that most people have experience being delayed by suicide. The train locomotive drivers are the ones most concerned—during a career as a driver, their engines can be expected to be used for suicide 2-3 times. The German magazine Spiegel published this story about train suicides in 2011.
Suicide rates of course has a long history as an interesting point of study in sociology and anthropology. Emile Durkheim published his classic book Suicide in 1897. There is also this article about suicide among the Mla Bri hunter gatherers of Thailand published by myself and my colleagues Gene and Mary Long in 2013.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.