Germany’s Burial Traditions

The Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, with the remains of the Berlin Wall in the background.

The Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, with the remains of the Berlin Wall in the background.

Deathcare.com already offered a short article on American-German funeral traditions, which have become assimilated – for the most part – in American traditions based upon religious beliefs. But, in Germany, burial traditions often are different than those in other parts of the world, and have been so for generations. But, changes are in the works, and some of the following traditions also contain explanations of changes when known.

  • Cremation and embalming have, traditionally, been handled by the state rather than by funeral homes and survivors had no choice on what to do with cremated remains as they had to be buried in a cemetery. Germany has relented in some cases recently, as ashes may be scattered in cemeteries or taken out to sea beyond the three-mile limit and scattered.
  • Almost half of eastern Germany’s burials are what is known as “anonymous burial,” something unknown in the U.S. outside the Potter’s Field. Although the Catholic Church believes that anonymous burials are a trend away from religion, most opinions lean toward the expense of a grave marker and other funeral expanses as a reason to avoid traditional markers and other burial accouterments.
  • With the above said, German cemeteries now set aside a grassy plot for anonymous burials with one monument that states the purpose of this field without headstones. In opposition to the purpose of saving money through an anonymous burial, these cemetery plots cost more than the average plot, as it include perpetual care by employees rather than surviving family members.
  • Germany does allow two to four urns in a space that is required for one casket. In the U.S., you would be hard pressed to find a cemetery that would allow more than two urns in one burial space. Additionally, unlike the U.S., most German cemeteries currently do not require precautions to prevent contamination of groundwater by cremains.
  • German cemeteries are almost exclusively state- or church-operated, though exceptions are occasionally made for people with special religious needs. Muslims groups, for example, are permitted to have their own cemeteries. However, Germany has some of the strictest burial laws, many of which clash with Islamic burial rituals.
  • Plots are usually rented for a certain period of time, usually 20 to 30 years, with the possibility of an extension. Eventually the plot will be used for another burial, once the mourners themselves have passed away. In other words, don’t expect to remain buried in Germany for more than a generation.
  • Finally, German corpses seem to be obtaining revenge for re-using graves…the corpses are not rotting in some cases. The corpses are turning into mummified artifacts or grave wax, otherwise known as “adipocere.”

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