April 11, 2024

German Burial Practices Explained


How wonderful it is to welcome guest bloggers, Ava and Chuck Stanford, cousins extraordinaire!

Recently, Ava sent to me their 2018 travel journal from a trip to Germany and especially to all villages Elling-related. That's one of my dream trips, so it was especially satisfying to read their account of people met and visits to Tielingen and Stellichte, among others.

While there, they visited cemeteries, looking for Ellings, but were enlightened to the burial practices in Germany. Those graves will never be found!

Ava and Chuck wrote:

"During the early days of our visit, we were confused by the lack of cemeteries at several churches and towns.  The cemeteries we did find were very neatly maintained with gorgeous flowers and neatly manicured gardens surrounding new, polished headstones - all with relatively current dates. We saw very few dated before 1975 and virtually none prior to WW II.

'Where are all the people?' we wondered.  Where are all the old gravestones and especially those of the Ellings who we came to visit?  Tietlingen has no cemetery at all, and Stellichte's new small memorial park was not much more than 1/2 acre in size.  In fact, the church cemetery at St. George Christophorus Jodocus Ev. Lutheran Church in Stellichte was actually plowed over several years ago when it became to much to maintain, according to the custodian who is married to the church secretary and lives next door in her family's 400 year-old home.  Now the church maintains no cemetery at all, except for the original Von Behr family plots for whom the church was built in 1608.

Church at Stellichte

Well, here is the rest of the story...it turns out there are several unusual things about burial laws in Germany.

  • When you buy a burial plot n Germany, whether it be one plot or a family grouping of 8-12 plots, you only purchase it for 30 years - that is 30 years from the date of the first funeral.
  • The plot may be repurchased again at the end of the 30 years and again at 60 years.
  • The policy results in part from emigrants and family members moving away from the local area, leaving no one to care for the gravesite nor anyone who has an ongoing connection to the deceased.
There are strict regulations pertaining to maintenance during the 30 year period to assure consistent appearance of the sites - sort of like an HOA that maintains the appearance of your neighborhood.

  • Burials are restricted to only wooden caskets. Metal caskets and burial vaults are strictly prohibited, and, in fact, unheard of at one church we visited.  The idea is that wooden caskets will decompose in 20-30 years and be 'totally' recycled by the time the plot s resold in 30 years.  
If any remains (such as femur bones that are the last to decompose) are found when excavating a 'reused' site, they are simply buried deeper and the new occupants are added on top of the existing site

One pastor told us there was only one metal coffin in his entire cemetery that belonged to a woman who had committed suicide using poison.  The woman had ingested such a massive dose of poison that the authorities were worried about the decaying body polluting the ground water, and they insisted a metal coffin be used to contain any contamination.

The policy is the same for cremation, where cremains are only allowed to be buried in wood urns that will deteriorate withing the 30 year time period.

Very few historically important gravestones are retained, and those are 'only for decoration,' according to one pastor.

Here is a great website to read about this topic, adding even more information.

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