German Words of the Week: Sargzwang and Friedwald

"The costly aversion of the eyes from death–", Philip Larkin called it. Not in Germany. A popular children’s books over here is a German translation of a Swedish book called "The Best Funerals in the World," (G) in which a team of three children provide funerals for dead animals they come across. One of them shovels up a grave, one writes a "poem by the gravesite," and one sheds appropriate tears.

Today on the local radio call-in show (G) the subject was again death — a woman from Hesse wants to have her father’s ashes transported to Switzerland and compressed into a diamond. The dead man’s mother objected, and a court in Wiesbaden upheld the objection. Under German law in most states, unconventional burials are either forbidden or strictly regulated. Everyone must be either cremated or buried in a coffin, in an actual grave in a conventional cemetery. Although they can choose to be buried anonymously if they wish.

The guest during the call-in show was "Gerold Eppler, Kunstpädagoge, Stellvertretender Direktor Sepulkralmuseum Kassel (G)" I haven’t any idea how to translate Kunstpädagoge except literally — someone trained in the pedagogy of art. The "Sepulchral Museum" has, let me assure you, just been added to my next in-Germany tourist itinerary.

During the ensuing discussion with Mr. Eppler, most of the people who called in were in favor of liberalizing Germany’s burial laws. One aggrieved-sounding fellow even claimed they were a desperate measure by the Catholic Church to preserve its relevancy by means of government monopoly. Nevertheless, liberalization continues apace. The state I live in, Northern-Rhine Westphalia, for instance, got rid of the Sargzwang four years ago. Adding Zwang (compulsion; something mandatory) the the end of any word in German connotes lack of choice, so Sargzwang is "casket-compulsion" — the requirement that everyone be buried inside some sort of coffin.

Many nature-lovers wanted to be buried in a Friedwald — a forest (Wald) that serves as natural cemetery (Friedhof). You scatter your loved one’s ashes at the base of a tree, and they are reunited with nature during the coming decades. The first one of these was opened in my state in 2004 (G), and had 250 reservations before it had even opened it doors.

6 thoughts on “German Words of the Week: Sargzwang and Friedwald

  1. No sprinkling ashes into the Rhine? Firing off fireworks full of cremated remains? Mixing them in tiny amounts into one’s gas tank for extra go-power? Mailing them to random addresses around the world? Huh.

    How timely this post is, given the very odd current events story about Keith Richards this week. No Sargzwang there. Nosebleeds probably.

    I suppose there is a historical aspect to Germany’s present policies.

    I’ve heard that in Germany, it is actually uncommon to have perpetual burial. Instead, cemetery plots are apparently usually just rented for a certain period of time, e.g. 20 years. What happens afterward?


  2. The caskets used for German burial grounds are usually made of wood. So, after 20 years in the moistness of the well-fertilized ground of a cemetery, they are pretty sure to have decomposed entirely. The whole grave has basically sunk in. So if you take away the upper layers of humus careful undertakers have piled atop the coffin, there is room for another inhabitant of the lot.

    That said, you (or your offspring) of course can renew the lease on your grave perpetually, so walking across a German graveyard, you might see many gravestones for entire families that were erected centuries ago. For those whose children don’t care or cannot afford it, however, this means that there last home is no permanent habitat. But consider the much higher population density before you judge Germans to harshly on that – there is just not enough space to enlarge the graveyards to ensure everybody gets his or her own permanent grave.

    By the way, Sargzwang or not, one difference I noticed comparing American cemeteries to their German equivalents is the somewhat haphazard fashion in which the graves are laid out there. Can’t the undertakers (and of course, I do not mean The Undertaker, who is one of the icons of every boy’s early 90’s youth) keep a straight line?


  3. Thanks, um, God, for the explanation. I just figured the remains were exhumed and sent to some giant Biotonne somewhere.

    I suspect that the apparently haphazard layout of some cemeteries in North America has to do with two things. One, North Americans don’t like to think about death, and they typically treat it as something unnatural and disconcerting, instead of accepting it as a matter of fact, as the Germans seem more inclined to. I know that is a sweeping generalization. Suffice it to say that most North American families do not participate in routine family visits to gravesites to the same degree German families do.

    Ergo, from a North American perspective, a boneyard shouldn’t resemble a boneyard, but instead, preference is often given to more natural parklike and less rigid concepts that distract from the ultimate purpose of the place. I’m obviously not including the gigantic and garish mausoleums some of the wealthy opt for, or the people who have been buried in their cars, or the illuminated angels and bronzed personal mementoes that sometimes grace more tasteless graves.

    Two, North Americans tend to seek an individualist note to their own grave, or that of their families. The idea of being put into a grave exactly 86 centimeters from the next person with only a stone color and inscription to differ, is unappealing to many. Instead, anything that can be done to provide a more personal note and to distinguish the deceased from his / her neighbors is often undertaken. This leads directly to the more unique means of disposing of people, such as fireworks, sending remains into space, or sprinkling ashes in a very personalized spot.

    An excellent example of a very North American cemetery is the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, which is one of Toronto’s oldest graveyards, but serves double duty as an arboreal attraction, since it features dozens of species of trees from all over the world. Each corner of the cemetery is parklike and unique. Even the ash resting places (little flat stones) are staggered to give an impression of a slightly unique position as against all of the others. Same with the ‘random’ placings in the natural stone wall in which ashes can be interred. Because it is almost possible to forget that it resembles a cemetery, people walk their dogs, rollerblade or bike through it all the time.

    The exceptions would be historical cemeteries, such as the one in Halifax where many Titanic dead are buried, which is kept exactly as it was in the 1920s, or military cemeteries, where the purpose is to represent the fallen in the exact same way as they died – equal amongst one another, with no difference at a distance.

    I would imagine that in Germany, there must be a healthy business refinishing gravestones, if they have served their purpose after a short period of times.


  4. Slightly related to this: The “Lustiger Friedhof Kramsach” (funny cemetery Kramsach) in Austria.

    You can see old gravestones out of whole Austria there whis inscriptions like:

    “Hier ruht Martin Krug
    der Kinder, Weib und Orgel schlug.”*

    “Hier ruht Franz Josef Matt,
    der sich zu Tode gesoffen hat.
    Herr gib ihm die ewige Ruh,
    und ein Glaesle Schnaps dazu.”

    (something like
    Here lies Franz Josef Matt
    who has drunken himself to death
    Lord give him eternal rest
    and a cup of schnaps.)

    “Hier ruht begraben die erwuerdige Jungfrau Rothburg Rindl
    gestorben ist sie im siebzehten Jahr, just als sie zu gebrauchen war.*”

    If you would inscribe something like this to a gravestone of a relative here in Germany you probalbly go to jail.

    *Translation left as execise for the reader 🙂


  5. Handcarved headstones are no doubt the best choice available, all in various types of stone the hand carving adds a certain personal element to the memorial/monument. Personally stonework created using only machines doesnt have the same level of creativlty in my opinion.


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