R.I.P.: German funeral rites and practices | Meet the Germans | DW | 30.10.2019
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Meet the Germans

R.I.P.: German funeral rites and practices

From mandatory coffins to the time-honored "corpse feast," Germany has an array of burial laws, funeral traditions and customs. But new trends are changing this too.

Deciding on an urn or casket, signing a contract for grave plot maintenance, selecting funeral speeches, organizing the memorial service, sending out obituaries individually or getting them printed in the newspaper: The bereaved have a lot to decide and take care of after a loved one's death. More than 900,000 people die in Germany every year.

At the same time, cemeteries increasingly face vast, unused spaces, as many graves, which are not property in Germany but are rented, free up after a certain period of years.

Depending on the environment and soil conditions, local cemetery administrations decide on the length of the lease for a grave, which varies throughout Germany — they do want to allow enough time for a body to decompose properly. In some instances, families can renew leases indefinitely, of course. But in the case of single grave sites that are not renewable, after that "rest period" has expired, the grave site is cleared — and can be reused. If it is not needed, the area is usually turned into a lawn.

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More cremations than caskets

Two major trends have been changing German funeral culture these past years, namely the increase in anonymous and semi-anonymous burials, and a move toward a more individual touch, says Jutta von Zitzewitz of the Düsseldorf-based German Funeral Culture Foundation. The ratio of cremation to casket burial is now 70 to 30 across Germany, the expert told DW.

Cemeteries are valued as national cultural treasures and public spaces of mourning, but services provided there urgently need to be modernized to better reflect mourners' individual wishes, otherwise they'll become a thing of the past, von Zitzewitz warned.

pond, patheays, a few people (picture-alliance/dpa/U. Deck)

An example of a landscaped communal grave area on Karlsruhe's main cemetery

Individualized send-off

Some model cemeteries in Germany, including Europe's largest cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf, already cater to people's special funeral wishes and offer a wide array of burial variations, said von Zitzewitz. For the most part, however, German cemeteries with their many rules and regulations are inflexible, and their services are  "old-fashioned" and too expensive for mourners, she added.

"Cemeteries are as important as operas and museums, and should receive similar state funding in the long run," the foundation's representative said.  

Through the cremation trend and an increase in burials that don't need a cemetery at all, like burials at sea or in forests, many German cemeteries now find themselves with large unused spaces on their hands. After all, a grave site for an urn is considerably smaller than for a casket.

Read more: Six feet under: Hamburg allows people to be buried with pets

QR code on stone(picture-alliance/H. Kaiser)

Interactive commemoration with a QR code on a headstone

QR memorials

Large, park-like communal grave site areas — maintenance-free, which is unusual in a country where families typically rent a plot for 20 to 30 years and are responsible for its often pricey upkeep — are also increasingly popular in Germany. A loved one's individual grave site may not be defined or marked there, but mourners definitely have a place of commemoration. 

Of course, some traditions endure, including the funeral service and a reception afterward — only the framework has changed, according to von Zitzewitz, who argues that mourners increasingly opt for a "tailor-made farewell with traditional elements."

Churches are not necessarily involved in funeral rites, while digitalization offers interesting options like digital mourning forums and QR codes on gravestones. Forget custom-made death notices and funeral invitations: Some funeral homes now offer to take care of those tasks via messaging apps.

You'll find more from Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans.

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