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Funerals in Germany: "You Can't Afford to Die"

The way Germany handles the dead has long been different, but changes are in the works.

Germany's methods of handling the dead have been out of step with those in the rest of the Western world. For generations, cremation and embalming were handled by the state, rather than by funeral homes; people have had no choice as to what to do with cremated remains (they had to buried in a cemetery); the private cemetery hardly exists; and many people choose an anonymous grave with no headstone (something that's found in Germany's European neighbors but virtually unknown in North America).

Changes are in the works, however, partly because laws are being harmonized with those of the European Union neighbors, and partly because many people want to rein in the exorbitant cost of a funeral and burial. It's a standing joke that "you can't afford to die."

And the costs can be staggering; up to €8,000. Expatriates might find themselves paying even more if they wish to ship the remains home for burial.

The most noticeable trend these days is toward cremation, which saves the expense of embalming. The urns in which the ashes are placed are usually less costly than a casket. German cemeteries permit the burial of two to four urns in the space needed for one casket. And, in contrast to a traditional burial, no special precautions are necessary to prevent contamination of the groundwater.

State-operated crematoriums are strategically situated around the country, and a small but growing number of funeral homes now may also perform this function. The funeral industry claims it can do the job at less cost while also providing the customer with more personal service.

At present, the savings on the embalming and the use of a smaller cemetery plot are about the only way that cremation saves money in Germany. This contrasts markedly with most other western countries. Cremated remains there don't have to be buried at all, saving the cost of the burial and a headstone. The urn can be enshrined on the mantelpiece or in the garden. Or the ashes can be strewn to the winds at some place that the deceased loved.

Germany has relented slightly here. Ashes can sometimes be strewn in a cemetery, or they can be taken out to sea, beyond the three-mile limit, and disposed of there. But that is about all. Efforts are underway let the survivors do whatever they wish with the cremated remains.

These restrictions date back to the time when the churches had strong reservations about cremation. Orthodox Jews, Muslims and some fundamentalist Protestants still resist. But most Protestants and Jews don't object, and the Catholics have also relaxed their once rather strict reservations.

Cremation has a special cost advantage for people who might wish to ship the remains of an expatriate back to the homeland. The American Consulate in Frankfurt reports that it hardly ever is involved with remains that are not cremated. This is because it costs about €5,000 to air ship a casket to the USA, and on top of that there is the cost of embalming, which is required.

Shipping cremated remains is cheaper, since they are much smaller and lighter. However, it isn't a simple matter of packing the urn in your suitcase. German law forbids the handling of remains, including cremated ones, by private individuals. Special papers are required and the arrangements must be made by the crematorium or funeral home.

Embalming, too, has been a state function, usually performed at a state-operated hospital. Here, too, the funeral industry has been trying, with some success, to get into this business. A few of them are already licensed for it.

Cemeteries in Germany 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.

It has long been the custom in Germany for family members to tend the graves of departed loved ones. But this practice, too, is breaking down, largely because of the great mobility of modern society. Children may not live close enough to their parents' graves. The deceased also may not have wished to burden his family with this chore. It is possible to pay the cemetery, or some other party such as a florist, to take over this job.

Plots are usually rented for a certain period of time, usually 20 to 30 years, with the possibility of an extension. Eventually, though, the plot will be used for another burial, once the mourners themselves have passed away.

In line with the latest trend, cemeteries now lay aside a grassy plot, called something like the "Field of the Unknown," for anonymous burials. The field will usually have one monument, declaring its purpose, but there will be no headstones for the individuals. This sort of burial costs more, but perpetual care of the plot is included in the price.

Anonymous burials came about partly because it saves on the cost of a headstone, but also because people are less religious nowadays. A full 27 percent of burials in Hamburg are anonymous, compared to only 4 percent in the considerably more devout Munich.

Full or partial payment of funeral costs used to be included in some insurance policies, especially health insurance policies. But this practice is being gradually phased out. There are, however, special policies covering this.

What to do in the event of a death

If the death occurs at home, the first order of business should be to summon a doctor to make out a death certificate. This can be the family doctor if you have one, otherwise you can summon the Notarzt listed in the telephone directory. If the death was at a hospital, the hospital will arrange for this initial step.

A German death certificate is essential for all persons who expire here, even an expatriate or tourist. With it your consulate or embassy can issue a certificate of death abroad, and it is important to have this. A German-language death certificate may present problems with, for example, the making of an insurance claim.

In the case of most expatriates the issuance of this certificate is the only way the consulate becomes involved. The expatriate family usually handles the rest, or turns things over to a funeral home. In the case of tourists and less experienced expatriates, though, the consulate can do a lot more; notify the next of kin, recommend a funeral home and help with language problems.

Whether death was at home or at a hospital, the next step should be the notification of a funeral home. Embassies and consulates maintain lists of such establishments, though they don't make any recommendations. Funeral homes are also listed in the yellow pages under Beerdigungsinstitute, but the experience of friends and coworkers is the best source.

The funeral home can, if you wish, take virtually all of the remaining details off of your hands, something that can be very welcome for people emotionally drained at the very time when much is expected of them.

The funeral home can come and get the remains and arrange for embalming or cremation. It can make arrangements for burial or shipment of the remains, notify the registrar (Standesamt) of the death, notify the appropriate embassy or consulate if the deceased was an expatriate, supply a coffin or urn, arrange for a funeral, send out death notices and invitations, order a gravestone, order flowers, make arrangements for the collection of insurance, arrange for the probate of a will, comply with the wishes of the deceased for organ donations and notify the deceased's pastor and many other things. The more of these services you order, of course, the more it will cost you.

Funeral services are usually at a chapel on the cemetery grounds or at a church. They are usually very traditional and solemn, though there will occasionally be a "Forest Lawn" type of event, with balloons, rock music and videos of the deceased in life. As we said, the funeral industry is changing.