Obituaries, funeral services, grave maintenance fees: Germany has an array of laws and traditions when it comes to death and burial. But new trends are bringing change.
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. Before the coronovirus pandemic, close to 1 million people died in Germany every year.
At the same time, cemeteries increasingly face vast, unused spaces, as many graves — which are not considered to be property in Germany but are rented — free up after a certain number of years.
Depending on the environment and soil conditions, local cemetery administrations decide on the length of the lease of a grave, which varies throughout Germany; after all, 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 gravesites that are not renewed after that "rest period" has expired, the gravesite is cleared — and can be reused. If it is not needed, the area is usually turned into a lawn.
More cremations than caskets
Two major trends have been changing German funeral culture these past years. There's a desire for individual funeral services that do justice to the life of the deceased and family and economic considerations that are increasingly key when deciding on types of burial, gravesites and grave maintenance, according to Simon J. Walter of the Düsseldorf-based German Funeral Culture Foundation.
The ratio of cremation to casket burial is now 75 to 25 across Germany, the expert told DW.
Cemeteries are still important public places of mourning, he says, but they need to be rethought, with much more of a focus on the needs of the bereaved.
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, Walter says.
For the most part, however, German cemeteries with their many rules and regulations are inflexible, he adds. "Cemeteries fulfill important functions in our communities and these should be much more in the focus of the public," Walter argues, saying he would like to see a broad debate about the current problems, but above all about the potential, of the cemetery.
Through the cremation trend and an increase in burials that don't need a cemetery at all — such as burials at sea or in forests — many German cemeteries are now finding themselves with large unused spaces on their hands. After all, a gravesite for an urn is considerably smaller than for a casket.
Large, park-like communal gravesite areas which are maintenance-free — 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. There, a loved one's individual gravesite may not be defined or marked, but mourners definitely have a place to commemorate them.
Of course, some traditions endure, including the funeral service and a reception afterward — only the framework has changed, according to Walter. He argues that mourners increasingly opt for a "tailor-made farewell with traditional elements."
That was particularly apparent in the first year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic when there were drastic restrictions on the number of attendees at funerals and farewells.
However, the situation during the pandemic gave digital developments in funeral and mourning culture a boost. These days, invitations to funerals or death notices are sometimes sent via messaging apps. There are also digital places of mourning, and QR codes on gravestones — some funeral home directors even stream the entire funeral service or record it for relatives who couldn't come to the service.