Berlin. Whether it’s the macabre word “corpse feast” for eating together after a funeral service or Bach’s Kreuzstabkantata with the chorale “Komm, o Tod, du Schlafes Bruder”: Germans have a special relationship with death. At most, many Germans admit that the Austrians, or more precisely the Viennese, with their mockery of the “beautiful corpse”, are even more morbid.
A current representative survey commissioned by the German Press Agency reveals how adults in Germany think about death, their own funeral service and the obligation to go to a cemetery, which is still valid in this country. In relation to dying and the forms of burial, an enormous change of heart has taken place in Germany in recent decades.
Only 14 percent want a traditional burial
According to the new survey, in 2022 only 14 percent of adults would like to be buried in the traditional way. On the other hand, 35 percent name cremation, seven percent burial at sea, and five percent donating bodies to science. 13 percent say it doesn’t matter what happens to them as a corpse. The rest made no statement or mentioned something else.
In addition, more than half (54 percent) are now in favor of allowing urns to be kept at home – as is often seen in American films, for example. Women (56 percent), East Germans (61 percent) and people from the growing group of non-denominational people (63 percent) are disproportionately in favor of lifting the traditional obligation to have a cemetery.
Cremation is gaining increasing popularity
For centuries, the only honorable form of burial in this country was burial in a cemetery. It wasn’t until a hundred years ago, starting in the 1920s, that cremation began to reappear. Fear of economic crises, inflation and possibly an undignified burial in the coffin also played a role.
As the burial culture association Aeternitas in Königswinter near Bonn reports, in 1960 only about ten percent of the dead were cremated in the Federal Republic. In 1993 it was already about 33 percent and today it is more than 75 percent.
The new acceptance of cremation had and probably has something to do with a different image of man and a certain belief in progress. In any case, the influence of the major religions on behavior after a death is dwindling: Christianity, Judaism and Islam traditionally require that an intact body be buried so that body and soul can continue to live as a unit in the afterlife.
Incidentally, because of the energy crisis resulting from the Russian war of aggression and the high gas prices, the crematoria in Germany are currently converting processes and relying more on electric instead of gas systems. According to the quality association for cremation facilities, cremation is still becoming more expensive for the relatives. According to the association, there are around 160 crematoria, of which around two-thirds are run by the municipality and one-third by the private sector.
Only 20 percent “often” think about their own death
300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantata “I will gladly carry the cross” (1726) still sounded longing for death – in the hope of meeting “the most beautiful Infant Jesus”: “Come, o Death, you sleeping brother; Just come and take me away; Untie the rudder of my little ship; Take me to safe port!”
Nowadays, many Germans tend to be masters at suppressing things. 41 percent say they only “rarely” think about their own death, 27 percent say they do so “occasionally”. Eight percent say they “never” think about death. 20 percent state that they think of their own transience “often” or “very often”.
When asked about the idea for their own funeral ceremony, 80 percent are conspicuously modest. 21 percent said they didn’t want a funeral service at all for themselves, 34 percent wanted a funeral ceremony in the closest circle and 25 percent wanted a small funeral ceremony for family and friends. Six percent imagine their farewell to be “rather big” with family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Two percent want it pompous: “as big as possible”.