What's With Germany's Strict Burial Regulations?

By: Allison Troutner  | 
German cemetery
Germans lease, rather than own, cemetery plots for a set amount of time, typically for between 10 to 30 years. Once the lease is up on their plot, like these seen here in a cemetery in Watenbüttel, the plot is "recycled" and a new resident moves in. Photo by Stefan Jaitner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Little remains untouched in Germany's quest for efficiency and safety for its citizens. Everything from German board games to the internationally recognized Autobahn has its own set of strict rules.

But overly stringent regulations even extend to the laws surrounding a deceased person's funeral and burial rights.


Cemetery Obligations

Unless your loved one lives — or dies — in Bremen, it's against the law to spread their cremains anywhere in Germany (so forget spreading grandpa in his favorite fishing lake or grandma in her garden). A 1934 law,  Der Friedhofszwang literally means "cemetery obligation" and states that all remains, whether in a coffin or urn, must have a final resting place in a cemetery.

The law was initially to protect public health because there was a fear that decaying bodies buried in any old place could cause an epidemic. However, this doesn't make sense for the ashes of cremated individuals, where the high-heat cremation process breaks down any micro-organisms. So why are cremains also regulated? Because Germany wants to make sure everyone has the right to publicly grieve.


Descriptions of the law say that an official place of mourning is a culturally significant part of the grieving process and should be available to anyone. There are no private burials or cemeteries; everyone must be buried in a public cemetery or in a columbarium. But here's the kicker: For coffin burials, a cemetery isn't the "final" resting place at all.

Cemetery Plots Are Leased

Due to space limitations, many German cemeteries control how long a coffin — and its occupants — can stay in a cemetery, usually between 10 to 30 years. Cemetery plots are, essentially, rented by families. After the remains decompose (assuming the soil conditions are right, which is an increasing problem in German cemeteries), the plot lease is available for renewal by the family. If they choose not to pay or can't afford to, a new "resident" moves in.


Finding Ways Around the Regulations

FriedWald forest
German families do have the opportunity to scattered the cremains of their loved-ones' bodies at the cemetery forest known as FriedWald in Berlin, Germany. Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

The high costs of required burial (between 5,000 euros to 15,000 euros or about $4,900 to $14,800) and the desire to spread cremains in preferable locations are causing some German citizens to transport their loved one's bodies to neighboring countries in a relatively new practice called "corpse tourism" or "cremation tourism."

Ash spreading or burial regulations are much more flexible in countries like Switzerland and The Netherlands. Because private individuals in Germany can't handle cremains, it's becoming more popular for them to send their loved ones' bodies to a country where they are cremated and given back to their families where they can they spread the cremains however they like.


One of the only options families have for spreading cremains in Germany is a burial at sea. Using a biodegradable urn and only in very specific locations in the Baltic and North seas, the cremains can be spread. More recently, though, families can choose to have the ashes scattered in forests or planted at the roots of a tree and commemorated with a plaque hung on the tree's trunk, like in Berlin's FriedWald cemetery.

Many families and local governments are asking that the German government leave their strict regulations to things like transportation and architecture and finally allow families to mourn and celebrate the life of their loved ones in meaningful and healing ways.