Wednesday, November 21, 2012

German Cemeteries

Walking around our town here in Germany, and other German villages and towns, we’ve happened upon a number of German cemeteries. I’ve always found cemeteries interesting so we’ve wandered around these German graveyards to see how they might be different from what we’re familiar with in the States. Two of the biggest differences are much more ornate decorations and, quite often, very large grave stones. Beyond that though, we've learned some things about the German cemetery industry that we figured you'd find as interesting as we did.

Here in Germany cemeteries are relatively small, especially compared to every other European country and the U.S. One reason is that most Germans are cremated but another cause is the fact that in Germany, grave sites are recycled. You're probably wondering, "How's that work?" Graves are leased in Germany, usually for 20 or 25 years at the cost of 800 to 4000 Euros depending on the size of the plot, single or family. At the end of the lease period most cemeteries place a yellow-tag notice on the grave to let any relatives or friends know that the time to rest in peace is up. Usually there's no accompanying phone call and only one notice. If the cemetery director doesn't hear from the family and a new lease period contracted, the head stone will be pulled up and, when the need arises, the site will be leased to a new occupant, the plot dug up and a new tenant buried there.

An example of the large grave stones that are very common here in Germany.

Now, when folks are buried in Germany their body is placed in a simple wooden coffin. No lead lined caskets, no cement vaults. So the body and coffin decompose relatively quickly. If a lease is not renewed for a grave site, the bones are left in the ground. Should a new grave be dug those bones will be dug up too and placed back with the dirt when the new inhabitant is settled into the ground.

Very well kept plot that's decorated for the upcoming Christmas season.

Another Christmas decorated grave with a "perpetual" candle that's very common here.

In order to save money, some Germans choose smaller plots rather than a long, rectangular grave. They can choose a smaller square grave and be put in the ground vertically . . . yes, perpendicular eternity.

You may wonder what a cemetery might do with the grave stones it removes from plots that no longer have a lease. They buff off the name and any comments on the stone and put it up for sale once again.

A war memorial site in the Weilerbach cemetery.

A small plot that may be one of those vertical grave sites.

Germany is the only country in Europe that does this grave recycling. They began the practice about 200 years ago in order to save space. Jewish and Muslim cemeteries are not required to utilize this leasing system. The graves of famous people are not leased either, in order to save their resting place for posterity. However, not everyone's fame lasts forever. Each year cemeteries review their list of in-ground celebrities, so a family might surprisingly find that their has-been dead personality no longer qualifies for a perpetual, no-cost resting place.

Simple but well kept.

You can see here how popular these "perpetual" candles are.

This grave has a little bit of everything.

A lot of Germans are not happy with these practices and maybe that's one of the reasons so many choose cremation. Quite often at the end of the initial 25 year lease families simple choose not to renew. Other times, families/friends that don't visit often are surprised to find somebody else occupying what once was their dead acquaintance's grave. Well, regardless of the complaints from many Germans, obviously, cemeteries are doing a good business . . . people are dying to get in there.  Hahaha!!  I just had to throw that in there.

Rest In Peace!!


  1. Very interesting and random blog. I like that you guys did some research and reviewing of the German cemeteries. Leave it to the Germans to recycle graves. I found this informative, thank you!

  2. I find this practice disturbing. I have German relatives and can no longer visit the graves of my dear grandmother and her daughter (my aunt) as they longer exist. My other deceased aunt obtained a reprieve when her husband died just before her "lease" was to expire and so the 2 of them are temporarily sharing "digs" again (pardon the pun). If one of their children doesn't join them soon, they will be removed. I dislike this erasure immensely, and resent the fact that elsewhere in the cemetery appear to be graves meant to remain in perpetuity. If you have the money to pay for a particularly ostentatious monument, it seems you are guaranteed a final resting place and money more than fame is what secures it.

  3. I first learned of this when I was in Kaiserslautern in 2004 and I'm a little confused. There is a cemetery across from the main gate at Kleber Kaserne and there are several graves that date back before the 1800's. Why are those graves allowed to stay where they are? Surely Kaiserslautern didn't have that many famous people and I doubt there are any living relatives that still renew those leases.

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  5. Placing a headstone in the cemetery is a common thing. But each country has a different style, Germany is one of the country approach different styles of headstone. This post shows how they are implementing the headstones.

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  6. Having just located the burial site of my Aunt - A DP who died Age 3 in Germany, I've realised that her grave will be gone by 2044. What can relatives do to protest this removal - is there some way of requesting that the remains/plaque be returned to the relatives rather than discarded?

    1. Starlight, It is German law as far as I know. I do believe you can contact the the cemetery yourself and inquire, I think as long as you pay to keep the grave-site it will remain as is in the year 2044.

    2. I learned of this disturbing practice when my sister and I planned a trip back to Germany where we were born 50 years ago. My Omi and Opi's graves are in the Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Dachau. The courthouse helped us with the location info and after traveling 5000 miles from the US we found them. No headstone. Just grass grown over where they were.. Apparently my mother was given an opportunity to renew the lease but didn't and I'm sure she couldn't at the time. Breaks my heart for her but now she spends eternity with them together. I'm grateful I will always be able to visit my mother's grave and place flowers on them in America. Germany really needs to find a more respectful way of handling their deceased.

    3. Monika so glad you were able to make the trip to Germany. Thank you for the comments.

  7. The gravestones are expensive. Presumably the funeral director re-sells them several times over! A racket under the guise of "Deutsche Ordnung."

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