Culture Clash on German Burial Ground | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.01.2003
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Culture Clash on German Burial Ground

Around 95 per cent of Muslims living in Germany choose not to be buried on German soil - due to high costs and Germany's strict burial laws.

The Turkish cemetery in Berlin is one of the few in Germany offering traditional Muslim burials.

The Turkish cemetery in Berlin is one of the few in Germany offering traditional Muslim burials.

Four times a year, Serdar Demir and his colleagues at the Turkish-Islamic Union burial service can be found at Field 27 of Cologne’s West Cemetery, where they routinely service the site.

Taking care of the graves at the cemetery - which was set aside in the 1960’s for the sole purpose of burying resident Muslims in Germany - is an important task for Demir. The split between German and Muslim burial practices is great and Demir spends a large part of his time organising funerals for resident German Muslims in their Islamic homeland.

Burial laws clash

According to experts, around 95 per cent of the estimated 3,5 million Muslims living in Germany choose not to be buried on German soil.

These high figures are unsurprising: Germany has some of the strictest burial laws, many of which clash with Islamic burial rituals.

Muslims bury their dead as soon as possible: if a death occurs in the morning, the burial will take place that afternoon. Under German law, relatives of the deceased are required to wait 48 hours before a burial can take place and must bury their dead in a coffin – or if the corpse has been cremated – in an urn. Islamic ritual states that the body be buried wrapped simply in a shroud and laid with its face facing Mecca.

In addition, Muslim tradition demands that Muslims should also be buried with other Muslims, stating that bodies should be given a eternal resting place. This is another impossibility under current German burial law, which demands that remains be exhumed after between 15 and 30 years and that grave stones be removed after this period of time.

Court case ruling

It was this rule that led to a group of Muslims living in Cologne to file a case against the city of Cologne eight years ago, following news that 277 Muslim graves at the city’s west cemetery were due to be exhumed.

In a one-off ruling by the court, the Muslims won an injunction against the city authorities and the graves remained untouched. Since then, they have remained that way.

“"Somehow it was agreed that it would remain forever that way,” says Demir.

Special cemetary sites

Muslim communities are not allowed to operate their own cemeteries, since they do not have the required status of a public corperation. However, many cities now have special cemetery sites set aside for Muslims. According to Demir Muslims nowadays living in Germany are much better informed about the options open to them than a decade ago.

German law regarding burial in coffins is on its way to becoming more relaxed: in some cemeteries, burial without a coffin is now possible. In addition, Muslims can now choose their own grave sites which will not be exhumed, providing they continue to pay to rent the site.

But it is the cost of maintaining a grave which is the main reason why, according to Demir, the number of Muslims who choose to bury their dead on German soil is not expected to increase significantly. Indeed, the cost of a flight back home and a funeral there is cheaper than a grave in Germany.