R.I.P. • Death in Deutschland
“The German way of death is perhaps even more regulated than the German way of life. The German propensity to regulate almost every aspect of daily life carries over into the afterlife, with Germany’s funeral industry among the most regulated in the world.” – from When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do, p. 107
Burial or Cremation?
Although burial is still more popular, over the last few decades Germans increasingly have been opting for cremation. In urban areas more than half elect to have their loved ones cremated, partly because it is cheaper than burial, but also because of preference. For Germany overall, about 40 percent choose cremation. In Bavaria and other Catholic regions, cremation is not as common, although the Roman Catholic Church ruled in 1963 that cremation was acceptable for Catholics. In many other European countries cremation is far more popular than in Germany, with a rate as high as 70 percent in Great Britain.
|Cremation Rates in the USA
The burial vs cremation percentages vary greatly from US state to state (and by age, education, race and economic status), but the cremation rate has risen steadily since the 1960s. In 2007 the US average for cremation was 35%. Most estimates place the 2010 average at about 40% (Canada: 47%). Cremation rates for some sample states:
• Arizona: 59.1% (2004)
• California: 50% (2005)
• Hawaii: 67.5% (2004, highest US rate)
• Minnesota: 40% (2006)
• Mississippi: 9% (2004, lowest US rate)
• Nevada: 67% (2004)
• South Carolina: 20% (2009, est.)
Sources: Minnesota: Disposition at Death, 1990-2006 (PDF)
and CANA (Cremation Association of North America)
Burial in a Cemetery (der Friedhof)
While most Germans choose burial over cremation, they usually have a limited stay in the cemetery of their choice. Because of space limitations, most German cemeteries allow their “guests” to rest in peace only for a maximum of 10 to 30 years. After that they must relinquish their grave to another deceased soul.
|Sample Burial Costs in Germany (prices in euros):
Costs vary by location and client preferences.
• Plain wooden coffin (Holzsarg): €515 and up (a "certified"
wood coffin is also required for cremation)
• More elaborate caskets: €1,000 - €6,000
• Burial plot and fees: €524 (anonymous grave) - €3,000
• Typical total funeral costs: €5,000 - €15,000
Only in some, mostly historical German cemeteries will you find the graves of people who died over a century or so ago, as in a number of Berlin cemeteries, where people like the writer Theodor Fontane, who died in 1898, still lie at rest. (But Karl Marx is buried in London.) The elaborate grave of my great-great grandfather, Peter Louis Ravené, a distinguished citizen of Berlin who died in 1861, still stands, complete with bronze sarcophagus. Somehow his grave survived World War II aerial bombing that destroyed the gravesites of many of his neighbors. (See photo.)
Many German cemeteries have codes and regulations that determine in great detail what may or may not appear on a loved one’s grave marker. For instance, a couple recently sued a Munich cemetery organization because it forbid them to place a ceramic photo image of their beloved child on his gravestone. (The Berlin grave of actor Horst Buchholz has just such a photo.) Critics say that such strict regulations create a monotonous uniformity that makes German graveyards less pleasant places to visit.
Only a few years ago, a court in the state of Baden-Württemberg overturned a cemetery’s regulations that banned polished granite gravestones. Surviving family members in Germany are increasingly up in arms about such picayune restrictions imposed by cemeteries. They feel that some degree of regulation is needed, but that in many cases the rules are much too restrictive.
Cremation (die Einäscherung/Feuerbestattung)
Unlike in most of the EU, Germany (and to a lesser extent Austria) has very strict laws regulating how and where cremated remains can be buried or kept. Up until recently there were no exceptions to the rule that cremains had to be buried in a cemetery (Friedhofszwang). The ashes of one’s loved one had to be turned over to a cemetery, not the survivors, in a sealed urn (Aschekapsel) or container. Still, only a few German Länder (states) currently allow exceptions.
New Law in North Rhine-Westphalia
In 2003, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) passed a law allowing cremains to be given to family members, who could then later decide in which cemetery the ashes would be buried. In practice, this has led to people keeping the cremains and often never having them buried. It is still illegal to do so, but no one enforces the cemetery requirement in NRW, so it is still a bit of a gray area. In some German states it is also possible to place the urn in a columbarium or an urn wall (Urnenwand).
|Sample Cremation Costs in Germany (prices in euros):
Costs vary by location and client preferences.
• Urn grave (Urnengrab) fee: €450 - €1470
• Urn wall niche (Urnenwand) fee: €600 - €1600
• Urn forest burial (Friedwald) fee: €900 (average)
• Typical total cremation costs (with burial of urn):
€2,800 - €6,000
Although it is a very popular practice in the US and many other countries, the scattering of cremated remains – on land or at sea – is not allowed in Germany. A few German states do allow cremains to be spread anonymously over a designated ash field in a cemetery. There are no such restrictions in Switzerland. In Austria one can get permission to bury cremains in one’s own yard.
In all of the German-speaking countries you are also allowed to bury cremains in a biodegradable urn within the root system of a tree (existing or freshly planted). Of course, in Germany this can only be done in an approved forest.
Germans who want to avoid the cremation restrictions in their state often use a work-around that involves having a loved one cremated in the Netherlands or Switzerland, where the laws are more liberal. The family can then get the cremains sent back to them so they can dispose of the ashes as they wish. For more about this, see postmortal.de (in German).
• Postmortem: Pets and Animals - Pet burial in
Germany, Austria, Switzerland
• Photos: Berlin Cemeteries - Photo gallery
• Famous Graves - Germans, Austrians, Swiss
Who Pays the Funeral Costs?
In most cases, German law makes the heir(s) of the deceased responsible for the burial costs. If the heirs are unable to pay, whoever was responsible for the deceased person’s financial support (including government agencies) is supposed to pay. If someone caused the death of the deceased, the heirs are entitled to recover the funeral costs from that person or persons. If no responsible party or survivors are found, the local Gesundheitsamt (health authority) must arrange and pay for the funeral. In any case, a funeral is required under German law!
It is possible to buy an insurance policy that will pay a set death benefit (das Sterbegeld), but since 2004, German public health insurance companies (Krankenkassen) are no longer required to pay any death benefit for a traffic accident death. Death benefits for work-related accidents are limited to one-seventh of the victim’s pay (determined by a bureaucratic formula). Most state employees (police, teachers, officials, etc.) and pensioners are entitled to a death benefit. In a typical case, the death benefit will not cover anything close to the actual funeral costs.
MORE > Postmortem: Pets and Animals
Web content © 1997-2013 Hyde Flippo
On the Web
- postmortal.de - An interesting site with lots of information about German burial/cremation laws and regulations (in German only)
- Initiative Friedhofskultur - A German site that encourages cemetery burial over cremation; sponsored by stone-carving and statue-making firms in the Trier area (in German only)
- Photos: Berlin Cemeteries - Historic cemeteries with the graves of famous and not-so-famous Germans
- Famous Graves - Not all notable Germans are laid to rest in Germany!
- Cultural Comparisons - Germany vs the USA
- Expat Page - Advice and links for expats in German Europe.
- Facebook - Find us on Facebook!
MORE > Postmortem: Pets & Animals