Finding Final Peace in the Forest | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.07.2005
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Finding Final Peace in the Forest

The one soft spot in Germany's otherwise rigid burial practices are Friedwälder, forests especially set aside to allow headstone-free burials in nature. Thus far, there are nine of them and their popularity is growing.


Woodlands are increasingly favored as burial spots

At first glance the Elm, east of the German city of Hanover, looks like an ordinary forest. Ingrid Ehrlichmann used to go for walks here with her husband.

Today she's visiting his grave, which is located at the foot of a tree. Two months ago, Ehrlichmann had her husband's urn buried here. She believes it's the perfect spot.

"The advantage is that there are no subsequent costs and I don't have to tend the grave. I can go on holiday without having to ask someone to water the flowers," Ehrlichmann said. "I plan to leave this village. So when I do move, I'll leave my husband behind in a 'neutral' place which is right for him."

Freer, less confining burial place

Indeed, woodland cemeteries are less costly than conventional cemeteries. In Germany, more people than ever before are choosing to be buried anonymously because relatives are often unable or unwilling to maintain graves.

Gräber auf einem Friedhof

In Germany, gravesites are leased for a period of 20 to 30 years. When that time is up, the family of the dead either has to renew the lease -- and keep paying -- or the plot is freed up for a new inhabitant. The family has to pay for the cost of removing the body and headstone.

Other options gaining in popularity in Germany are the headstone-free, "anonymous" gravesites in regular cemeteries, which are less expensive and come with less responsibility than a normal plot.

In all nine of Germany's woodland cemeteries, there are no flowers or gravestones to serve as reminders of those who lie buried here. Still, Ingrid Ehrlichmann considers it a very personal spot.

"We chose this place with great care," she said. "We can recognize the tree by the number on it, but we'd know it even without that. I can identify with the tree. I know the spot where the urn lies and that's important to me."

Winter am Strand

The island of Usedom

There are plans for another woodland cemetery on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea. Usedom resident Dieter Schön said he would prefer his final resting place to be in a forest rather than under a slab of granite.

"The idea of being covered by something heavy doesn't much appeal to me. I have the feeling that everything here in the woods is somewhat freer, less confining, not so cumbersome. That's why it's the best solution for me."

Church up in arms

Still, the idea of establishing a woodland cemetery on Usedom has met with resistance.

"I wouldn't be allowed to lay any flowers at this woodland cemetery, not even a plant or a stone, said Usedom resident Annelie Schallock. "So how am I supposed to remember those buried there with love and joy? "

Germany's Catholic Church too believes that woodland cemeteries are leading to the erosion of the meaning behind a Christian burial. The church says maintaining a grave is about more than just pulling up weeds.

"Tending to a grave isn't a bothersome inconvenience, said Andreas Scholler, a Catholic priest. He added that it is important for humans to know that they haven't just disappeared after their deaths, but "that someone is still looking after me, caring about me. I haven't simply vanished, been erased, which is why this really is a very significant part of human life."

Residents resist woodland burials

It's primarily nearby residents who are opposed to the planned woodland cemetery. Their reasons are more profane. They feel that a forest can't be both a place of leisure and a burial ground.

"It's uncomfortable for all concerned. For example, if I was taking a group of children for a walk in the forest, completely unsuspecting, and then ran into some mourners it would be awkward for both groups," said Siegfried Nast, who lives on Usedom.

For other residents, it's an emotional issue. They don't want the forest that they played in as children to become a burial site.

Resident Christel Schaumkessel said: "I have a strong affiliation to this corner of the woods, and I'd be very sad if it became a cemetery. Just like a graveyard, a woodland cemetery is a place of rest, contemplation and mourning. I don't want it."

The majority of residents here feel the same way, so should the town council vote against it, Dieter Schön will have to find another final resting place.

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