Breathing New Life Into Old Rites | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.02.2005
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Breathing New Life Into Old Rites

Germany remains one of the few countries in Europe which operates a system of enforced cemetery burials, but there is a growing sense among civilians that the time has come to breathe new life into an old tradition.


Urns are largely untouchable in Germany

Last week, the German Bishops' Conference rounded off a three-day session with a call to Germans not to underestimate the importance of traditional Christian burials. "Grieving and remembering requires ritual and designated locations. Foregoing structured mourning and remembrance of the dead makes it harder to come to terms with the loss," Cardinal Karl Lehmann said in his statement.

It was a clear message to the population to do more to uphold the rigid regulations which currently govern funeral rites. As it stands the deceased, who are to be buried within seven to fourteen days depending on the law of the relevant state, are handed over to an undertaker within a matter of a day, and do not leave his watchful eye until they are safely interred, be it in a coffin or as ashes in an urn.

Frisches Grab auf einem Friedhof

Traditional graves are hard to get around

For the most part Germany is incredibly conservative when it comes to laying its dead to rest. There are no open-casket last goodbyes, back-yard burials or river-side burning ceremonies, and even the scattering of ashes is still largely taboo. "The laws in Germany are too strict, too bureaucratic, and undertakers are unhappy that they cannot do more to meet the changing wishes of the people," Rolf Villhauer, who runs an advertising agency for undertakers, said.

Blazing a trail?

And the only sign of such change is in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the funeral law was changed two years ago. "It is the only state where relatives of the dead are now allowed to physically touch the urn and to scatter the ashes themselves," Renate Nixdorf, spokeswoman for the consumer initiative Aeternitas said. But even that is regulated, with woodland areas set aside as designated final resting places for the less conventionally minded.

As for the rest of the country, one of the only ways to circumnavigate the rules is to have the body of the deceased transported to Holland for cremation there. It's big business for funeral directors such as Karl Schumacher. "There is a definite trend towards cremation in Holland, where after 30 days, the relatives of the deceased can collect the urn themselves and scatter the ashes on Dutch ground."

Das Krematorium der Hamburger Friedhöfe

It is unsual for relatives to be present at German cremations

If, however, an urn is brought back across the border, German law comes into immediate effect, compelling its burial. "It is estimated that some 10,000 urns are brought over the border illegally each year. Anyone who gets caught has to hand the ashes over to the authorities to be interred in a cemetery. But there are no fines and no punishment involved, so people don't mind taking the risk," said Nixdorf.

A fine price to pay

Karl Schumacher, whose undertaking business deals with the last arrangements for some 2,500 people each year, says that for many, that final voyage across the Dutch border is as much about money as anything else. And with the average German funeral costing €5,000 ($6,660), it's not hard to see how the need might arise.

Up until recently, the government helped to ease the financial burden by contributing €500 to the undertaking bill, but that little luxury has been dispensed with, leaving each to his own solution. For many, the first thing to go is the headstone. Anonymous graves were first introduced into German cemeteries back in the early nineties, and they have caught on. But it is precisely such trends which have the Catholic Church and others in a state of mild consternation.

"The clear increase in anonymous graves signifies a break with the culture of remembrance in Germany, and we must consider the possibility that this anonymity might be abused by people who are trying, in some way to punish the dead for their behaviour during their lives," a spokesman for the German Bishops' Conference said.

Kreuz mit Efeu

When the lease is up, it's pay up or make space

That's one theory, yet unlikely a decisive reality. At the heart of the matter are simple mathematics, as besides the cost of the funeral itself, relatives also have to pay to lease the graveyard plot for anything between 20 and 30 years.

"Relatives have the choice to extend the lease when it expires, but if they decline, they have to move the headstone, and the plot is re-dug for a new coffin. In some cases, the cemetery authorities offer to do the job, but at a cost," Renate Nixdorf said.

Alternative burials

Having to clear one's grave after the lease has run out, not only sounds like a slap in the face for resting in peace, but it also contradicts the idea that a marked grave is a must. What happens once the headstone is gone and the spatial association is removed, or moreover occupied by a completely new inhabitant with its own grieving family?

UNESCO Biosphärenreservat Bayerischer Wald, Foto: Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald Bachlandschaft

Many Germans would like to have their ashes scattered in woodlands

Surely that is an argument worthy of serious consideration among those who make and review laws governing burial practices. Ashes scattered into the wind from the top of a hill or tipped into the ground at the base of a specially-planted tree would not only signify the granting of a last wish, but would also provide a chance for eternal association to be handed down through the generations with no cost to anyone.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Aeternitas last year, some 30 percent of Germans said they would like to see a broader range of burial options.

"We believe that the laws in Germany should be opened up so that everyone should be buried as he or she chooses," Renate Nixdorf said. And within reason, that can scarcely be too much to ask.

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