“Dealing with death is the root of culture.” – Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), Swiss writer
“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
Most people worry about the increasing cost of living, but Germans also worry about the high cost of dying. The German cost of dying is among the highest in Europe and the world.
Strict German laws and regulations concerning the burial or cremation of a deceased person reduce competition and increase the costs. The German funeral and cemetery industry is protected by laws that, with few exceptions, make burial in a cemetery mandatory, even if the deceased has been cremated. Der Friedhofszwang, the legal requirement that deceased persons be buried in a cemetery, is one of those grating German terms that truly expresses the rigidity of German law concerning death and funerals. There is little free choice for families faced with the death of a loved one.
Over the years Germans have learned how to get creative in order to avoid the expense and hassle of a typical German funeral, which typically costs from 5,000 to 10,000 euros ($5,500-11,000) or more. Cremation is an increasingly popular option, but the savings compared to a normal burial are limited by laws that still require a coffin and a burial plot even for cremains. Such onerous laws have led to so-called “corpse tourism” (see below) and other drastic measures designed to escape Germany’s costly, bureaucratic restrictions.
One of the most bizarre funeral cost-avoidance methods is an increasing trend in which Germans donate their corpse to science. This practice has reached the point where researchers at the 33 anatomy institutes in Germany have been forced to turn away cadavers or even to charge donors.
Burial or Cremation?
Although burial is still 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 50 percent now choose cremation. There are, however, strong regional differences. In eastern Germany (the former GDR) the rate of cremation is now over 80 percent. In Bavaria and other Catholic regions, cremation is slightly less 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 74 percent in Great Britain.
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
Burial in a Cemetery (der Friedhof)
Those Germans who choose burial over cremation 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 ten to 30 years. After that they must relinquish their grave to another deceased soul.
Only in some historical German cemeteries will you find the graves of people who died over a century or so ago. In a typical German cemetery, usually owned by a government entity or a church, the oldest graves and headstones date back only 20 or 30 years. As seen in the photo above, some noted Germans, such as the writer Theodor Fontane, who died in 1898, still lie at rest. (But Karl Marx is buried in London.) The elaborate memorial grave of my great-great grandfather, Peter Louis Ravené, a distinguished citizen of Berlin who died in 1861, still stands, complete with bronze sarcophagus. (See photo below.) Somehow his grave survived World War II aerial bombing that destroyed the gravesites of many of his neighbors. – Also see Famous Graves
German restrictions don’t end with the laws that dictate where a corpse has to go. Most 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 they were not allowed to place a ceramic photo image of their beloved child on his gravestone. But the Berlin grave of actor Horst Buchholz (1933-2003) has just such a ceramic photo marker. (See 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)
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 generally verboten in Germany. When it is done, it is almost always done illegally. Swiss residents living near Lake Constance (der Bodensee) have long complained about the many Germans who come to spread the ashes of the deceased in the lake’s waters along the Swiss shore of Lake Constance because it is illegal to do so on the German side. They object to having the lake, a source of drinking water, “contaminated” by cremains, and turned into “the lake of the dead.” Some German funeral homes even help arrange special trips to the lake, where the ashes are scattered in a solemn ceremony. Switzerland has almost no restrictions on what must be done with cremains.
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 handled. 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 (Urne mit Aschekapsel). German law has traditionally made it illegal for a funeral home to allow the next of kin to get their hands on the cremains of a loved one prior to burial. Only two German Länder (states) currently allow exceptions: Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia.
New Burial Laws (Bestattungsrecht)
On January 1, 2015 a new law went into effect in the German city-state of Bremen allowing for the first time in Germany the burial of cremains outside of a cemetery. Citizens of Bremen can now legally bury or spread the ashes of a loved one in their own backyard or garden. But… the law still has some typical German red tape: You have to get a special permit, the deceased had to be living in Bremen prior to death, and the deceased had to have made a written declaration designating a place for their ashes and a person to take care of the matter. You must also prove that you have the legal right to deposit the ashes on the property.
An earlier (June 2003) law in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) allowed cremains to be given to family members, who later can decide in which cemetery the ashes should be buried. In practice, this has led to people keeping the cremains and never having them buried at all. It is still illegal to do so, but no one enforced the cemetery requirement in NRW, so it was and is still something of a gray area. In some German states it is allowed to place the urn in a columbarium or an urn wall (Urnenwand), but that is still in a cemetery.
Bowing to funeral industry pressure, in October 2014 the 2003 NRW burial law was revised to require a written statement from the next of kin designating the place of burial for the urn, even if it was not in Germany. The new law now requires burial of the cremains within six weeks, but seems to lack any way to enforce that rule, particularly for urn burials taking place outside Germany. The changes drew criticsm from Aeternitas e.V., a German consumer protection group concerned with the funeral industry.
The new 2014 law also took into account the concerns of the estimated 1.3 Muslims living in the state, allowing the establishment of Muslim-run cemeteries, and the relaxation of burial requirements that violated Muslim traditions. The fact is that about 90 percent of Muslims (mostly Turks) who die in Germany are buried abroad because Germany requires a coffin and other non-Muslim conditions for burial.
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
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, similar to the new Bremen law.
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.
Corpse Tourism – Cremation Tourism
Germans who want to avoid the cremation restrictions in their own country often use a work-around that involves having the deceased cremated in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, or Switzerland, where the costs are much lower and the laws are more liberal. The corpse is trucked out of the country for cremation. The family of the deceased can then get the cremains sent back to them so they can dispose of the ashes as they wish. Such practices have led to the terms “corpse tourism” or “cremation tourism.” In this way discount funeral operators help people avoid the cost and restrictions imposed by most German states.
Expats in Germany: Reporting a Death
Germany’s restrictive burial laws also apply to expatriates when there is a death in the family while living in Germany. Even if an expat just wants to send the body of the deceased back home for burial, things can rapidly get very complicated.
Because it can cost over $5,000 to fly a casket home to the USA or elsewhere, and the required embalming adds even more expense, most people choose cremation. On top of that, recent terror-related security concerns mean airlines will no longer accept a closed casket.
But even if you decide on cremation, you can’t just put an ash-filled urn or box in your luggage or carry-on bag and hop on a plane. As we mentioned above, German law does not allow private persons, even next of kin, to handle cremains. Whether or not you fly on the same aircraft as the deceased, you have to make arrangements with a funeral home or crematory, which will take care of the logisitics and paperwork required to ship cremation ashes out of Germany.
How to Report a Death
Whether a German citizen, a tourist or an expatriate, the death of anyone in Germany requires an official death certificate. If the death occurs in a hospital, the hospital staff will take care of that. If the death happens in a private residence, a physician must issue a death certificate. You will need the German death certificate before you contact your consulate for an English-language (or other language) certificate of death abroad. This is an important step, especially if you plan to ship the remains out of Germany, or you need to file a life insurance claim.
You will need to contact a German funeral home (das Bestattungsinstitut) to make arrangments for burial or cremation in Germany, or to ship the remains home. Your embassy or consulate can help you find a suitable Bestattungsinstitut, or you may want to get recommendations from friends and acquaintances. Remember what we mentioned above: You must have a funeral home make any arrangements for shipping or burial. But turning all this over to them will be a welcome relief during a stressful time.
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 expenses.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- The German Way of Death: Pets and Animals – At least it’s easier to bury pets than humans in Germany. What expats need to know.
- Famous Graves – Not all notable Germans are laid to rest in Germany!
- Living in Germany – Info and advice for expats in Germany
- Notable People from Austria, Germany and Switzerland
- Featured Biographies of notable Austrians, Germans and Swiss
- Germans in Hollywood – More bios
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Cultural Comparisons – Germany vs the USA
ON THE WEB
- Aeternitas e.V. – Bestattungsrecht – Information about German burial and cremation laws and regulations from this German association that advocates more transparency and the liberalization of German burial laws (in German)
- 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)
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