Skeletons In The Backyard? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.11.2002
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Skeletons In The Backyard?

A German state's plan to become the first to allow residents to bury their dead in their backyards is upsetting politicians and preachers alike.


Burial - your way. Except in Germany

It's the final choice you'll make -- what happens to your mortal remains after death has claimed you. In Germany, however, the living have rather limited choices. Burial or cremation in cemeteries are the only options on offer, with coffins and urns being the recommended and enforced method of internment. But now, the government in the western German state of North-Rhine Westphalia wants to relax the rules for its dearly departed.

The plans on the table will allow people to bury their dead in their yards or keep the ashes of loved ones on the mantelpiece. Such things might be common practice in many countries, but in Germany such suggestions have angered church authorities and conservative politicians who say changing the rules would be disrespectful to the dead.

But these days, many people believe they should have the choice to decide for themselves.

My bookshelf, my tomb

Bernd Bruns, a craftsman from Düsseldorf, doesn't want to be buried in a cemetery when he dies. His preference is to be cremated and have his ashes placed in an urn that will be kept in the home he has shared with his wife for most of his life. Bruns has been fighting for many years for the right to spend eternity looking down from his bookshelf.

"I'd like to remain at home in the surroundings where I've spent most of my time. And I'm not the only one who'd like to do that," Bernd said in an interview with DW-TV.

He feels so strongly about the issue that he's set up a popular Web site, which provides tips on how to get around burial red tape and have your last wishes carried out to the letter.

Standard practice in Holland

In the Netherlands, widely recognized as the most "pro-choice" nation within Europe, the Dutch have already been granted more of a choice when it comes to planning that final resting place. They can bury them in the cemetery, in their garden, at a private mausoleum or cast the cremated ashes to the four winds. An urn is supplied after cremation only if the deceased had made provision for it in the will.

Todestag Willy Brandt

Willy Brandt: Not buried in the garden.

But this liberal attitude championed by Bernd Bruns, his supporters and the Dutch is not shared by all. There are many people who believe the dead have their place in consecrated ground and not in the back garden or house to be found by future unsuspecting generations.

Günter Luhmann, a funeral director, goes cold when he considers the possibility of someone making an unwitting discovery. "It makes me shudder to think of the deceased landing on a dump because people who have no relation to the dead person or don't even know what's in the box or urn," he says. "They may just think that it's been sitting there quite a while and hand it over to the public sanitation services where it ends up in the rubbish."

Current burial laws problematic for Muslims

In addition to the proposed changes to regulations controlling the burial of the dead in German cemeteries, there are further calls for rules concerning cremation or burial in coffins to be scrapped. Germany's churches state that a coffin is mandatory and that even shrouding the corpse is against burial laws. The issue has been a problem for years in Germany, which has seen dramatic growth in its Muslim population.

Islamic burial requirements ban the use of coffins and, therefore, contravene public health laws. Since exhumation is also strictly forbidden under Islam and bodies must be buried as soon as possible, 90 percent of Germany's Muslims are flown to Islamic sites to be buried once they die. Germany has no Muslim cemeteries, but there are plans to build one in Berlin.

Hermann Weber of Aeternitas, a German consumer organization that deals with cemetaries and funeral services, supports the idea that the laws requiring the use of coffins in burials should be removed, in order to show sensitivity to the religious beliefs of Germany's multicultural and multi-faith society.

"I'm not concerned that lots of people are going to want to be buried without a coffin," he told DW-TV. "But it could help certain ethnic groups such as Muslims -- and why shouldn't we make some concessions to people from these religious communities when it does us no harm at all."

The body should be returned to God, says Church


The Church believes consecrated is best.

"Judeo-Christian tradition states that the remains of the dead should not be placed under our own control or those affiliated with us but should be returned to the hand of God...through consecrated ground, " says Father Schwab of the Protestant Church in Germany Rhineland.

A decision date has yet to be set and the debate is likely to rage on even then. However, after his years of campaigning, Bernd Bruns feels confident enough to have already bought an urn that he says fits very well in his bookcase.

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