Learning the hard stuff
This past week my daughter, who attends 1st year in our village Grundschule (elementary school), participated in a class project focusing on farwells, partings, and death. This three day project began with talking about feelings surrounding having to say "farewell" to friends and loved ones and ended with a trip to our village cemetery. I asked my daughter if she would take me on the same tour of the cemetery and show me all the things she learned. Some things were lost in translation, so I did a bit of research and found the German traditions of dealing with the deceased were quite different from our own.
the well kept german cemetery
When we arrived at our small village cemetery, the first thing I noticed was the care that was put into each grave site. Many had clean and polished headstones, fresh cut or silk flowers, potted plants, figurines of angels, candles, family mementos and more. Routinely, I have seen people entering the cemetery with gardening tools and cleaning supplies. I later learned that not caring for a grave can have possible consequences in retaining the spot. The other thing I noticed was that the dates of death were all very recent, most within 20 years and the size of the graves varied from very large to smaller squares.
The many rules of death in Germany
There are three types of acceptable burial under German law: earth, cremation, and maritime. An earth burial is the most traditional sort, which includes a casket, headstone, and a place in the village cemetery. In our village cemetery, I noticed the graves were not uniform, and some were huge and some were small squares. What I found out is that unlike in the US, graves are leased in Germany instead of owned. The city rents the spaces for a set amount of time, which is typically 15-30 years, with possibility of and extension. When it comes time to renew, if no one is able or available to pay the fees or care for the grave, then the contents are removed (except the bones), headstones are recycled, and the space awaits the next occupant. Germany is the only country in Europe to have this practice of recycling graves.
The second type of burial is cremation. Cremeation laws regulate how and where cremated remains can be handled. It is nearly always through the government, and rarely privately. Although the person passed is turned to ash, they must still be laid to rest in a cemetery, with few exceptions. The spaces for the cremains are the smaller square plots and they can contain multiple occupants. These smaller graves, Urnengrab, are also leased. Another cost effective option is a wall space, called a Urnenwand. If you prefer a more isolated option, there is the forest cemetery, or Friedwald. Here, you can bury the ashes of up to 10 people under one tree. You will take the biodegradable urn and lower it into the ground below a tree, which will be marked with the information of the deceased. Although it is popular in the U.S. to scatter ashes of the dead in a favorite place or keep your uncle or grandmother in an urn on your mantel, it is still mostly forbidden in Germany.
The third type of burial is a sea burial. You can purchase an urn which will dissolve after a few minutes in the water. You are still not able to do this privately, so an undertaker, typically employed by the city, will accompany you and handle the ashes. You can head out to the designated safe distance for the ashes to be sent out to sea. Many people like the idea of putting their loved ones into the water in a beautiful area, but it has caused some grumblings at locations such as Lake Constance (der Bodensee) otherwise known by the Swiss as "Death Lake". Germans will sail to the Swiss side of the lake where there are few regulations on disposal of ashes and leave their loved ones there, since it is illegal on their side. The lake is a source of drinking water and the Swiss complain it's contaminated by the cremains, and they'd rather not be drinking the dead.
Remembering loved ones
At the end of the project, my daughter brought home a candle that she had made in school for my grandmother, whom I had lost 8 years before. She knew that I missed her terribly and told me they made these candles to be lit whenever we wanted to think about someone we loved and lost. Many children took their candles, brightly colored and decorated, to the cemetery that day and placed them on the graves of family members. I found it interesting that the children weren't afraid to go into the cemetery, but visited often with their parents to help care and tend to the graves of their recently lost loved ones.