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Culture

Germans opt for alternative burials for individual touch

November 1 is a holiday in Catholic parts of Germany, where it's a tradition to light candles and visit the graves of dead relatives. These traditional sites are changing as more people opt for alternative burials.

Fritz Roth's coffin was brimming with farewell gifts. Bouquets of flowers, decorations from Carnival, baked Christmas cookies, books, and a bottle of wine had been crammed inside the red casket.

"His coffin was like a suitcase when you go traveling," his son David Roth said. "It was so full that we had the feeling we had to sit on it to get it closed again."

Five months later, in May 2013, Roth's cremated remains were buried beneath a herb garden. His grandchildren built the urn with a balloon and papier-mâché, then used carved potatoes and paint to decorate it with stars.

A path runs through a forest cemetery

Germany's first private cemetery doesn't have traditional gravestones

As far as German traditions go, it wasn't a typical send-off. Not least because cremated remains must be buried within six weeks under state law. But during his long career as an undertaker, Roth was known all over Germany for his non-conformist approach to death.

He founded the country's first private cemetery in 2006, and ran the Pütz-Roth funeral home in the leafy western German town of Bergisch Gladbach near Cologne for almost 30 years.

Up close and personal with death

David, who is 35, hopes to continue his father's mission: to help people accept death as a natural part of life that need not be hidden from view.

"In former times it was usual in Germany that when someone died, he stayed at home," he said. "The family, the neighbors, the whole village were able to say goodbye, to see what death means and…you have to give [the body] away at a certain point because it's changing."

Now things are different. David decries what he says has become a "very sterile approach" to death in Germany.

Personal items at the foot of a tree

Relatives can add a personal touch to the grave

"Normally everything happens really fast, and you don't see the person who died again," he said. "A funeral director comes and takes away your beloved one. The next thing you see is a coffin or a small urn that goes into the gravesite. You don't understand or see what happened there."

A grave affair

Germany has strict burial laws. It's one of the only countries in the world, for example, where cremated remains must be interred directly in a cemetery, instead of being kept at home or scattered outdoors. David believes legal limitations shouldn't interfere with the personal grieving process.

"All we know about previous cultures, like the Romans, the Egyptians, we know from their graves,” said David. "If you find our remains in 500 years, you can say about us that we have been always lawful and perfectly hygienic."

At any one time there are 30 to 40 bodies at his family's funeral home. Living rooms have been set up where the bereaved can sit with the deceased. David said it's important people spend as much time with the body as they need - even if it takes three weeks - to accept what has happened.

A view of a cemetery shaped like a football stadium

Football fans show their commitment beyond the grave

He encourages mourners to add a personal touch to the burial by creating something unique to put at the gravesite. They can also paint a coffin or build their own with the home's coffin construction kits.

"The principle is more or less a bit like being your own pharaoh," David said. "There is nothing ridiculous or stupid, as long as it has a meaning for them."

The Roth's private cemetery stretches across a small hillside covered with trees. It doesn't look like a traditional graveyard. Art installations and sculptures are spread amongst the trees and most of the 2,200 gravesites here are marked with personal mementos - children's toys, a flute, tennis balls, a cat carved out of wood.

It's your funeral

Many families prefer to have a traditional funeral, but some also embrace the possibility of designing their own rituals. David said one man wanted to bury his wife at night by the light of the moon, another party opted to put the ashes in a small boat on the Rhine River. Others planned a funeral with a communist party theme: "We had pictures of the deceased with Brezhnev and Castro, and where they said goodbye by singing the Internationale," said David.

Gravestones in a chapel cemetery

Traditional, religious burials are no longer the only option

In Germany there has been a significant shift away from religious ceremonies to more individualized forms of farewell. In 2008, the Hamburg football club, HSV, opened up Europe's first graveyard specifically for football fans. Club supporters have the option of being laid to rest in a blue coffin inscribed with the club's motto while the HSV hymn plays. Another Bundesliga side, Schalke, have since opened a cemetery giving their fans the same chance to show devotion after death.

But themed funerals and homemade gravesites aren't for everyone. The expansion of burial options has made some traditional undertakers uneasy.

"Before Germany had a strict and traditional burial culture, where every burial was arranged by a pastor or a priest," said Oliver Wirthmann, Director of the Trustees of German Funeral Culture. "It used to be a religious ritual, and now it's entertainment…that's not good."

Burial tailored to the individual

Cremations are on the rise in Germany. In 2011, they overtook burials for the first time, and in 2012 54.5 percent of people were cremated. There has also been a recent trend towards anonymous burials in sanctioned forests or fields, outside traditional cemeteries. Wirthmann says this mainly driven by secularization and the high costs of traditional burials.

Professor Rainer Sörries, Director of the Museum for Sepulchral Culture in Kassel said burial options are also becoming more diverse because people have started to talk more openly about death and dying.

"Many traditions have been lost, and people today want more individual burials that meet their own needs," he said. "For relatives who are left behind, a key motivation is arranging a funeral that the deceased would also have enjoyed themselves."

In David Roth's view, "the possibilities are unlimited."

Listen to audio 05:11

Tour the Pütz-Roth funeral home with DW's Natalie Muller

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