The Integration of Death

Integration for Germany's growing Muslim population does not stop at death's door as undertakers and city officials are learning. Sabina Casagrande visited a cemetery where all graves face Mecca.

photo: AP
The Muslim burial ground in Cologne.

​​Rows and rows of neat graves line the paths of Cologne's Westfriedhof. Then, all of a sudden, a field catches the eye. Here, all of the graves are slanted.

The Westfriedhof is one of 70 public cemeteries in Germany that have set up Muslim burial grounds. The graves are dug so that a corpse lying on its right side faces Mecca. Some plots at the Westfriedhof bear ornate tombstones shaped like mosques or engraved with decorative inscriptions. Others are marked by a simple wooden plaque.

"Burial culture, like every form of culture, is constantly changing," said Kerstin Gernig, director of the Board of German Undertakers. "We are not a homogenous society, but rather an intercultural, a multicultural one, where various needs must be responded to accordingly."

Decades after the first Muslim guest workers began arriving in Germany from Turkey and North Africa, where and how they bury their dead has forced Germans to re-evaluate the laws and traditions involved in the country's burial culture.

Reunited in death with the home they left behind

Until now, Muslim burials have actually been more the exception than the rule in Germany. Many first generation Muslims, who came here in the 1960s, still have strong family and emotional ties to their home countries. They live here in the knowledge that though they may not return home during their lifetime, but at least be reunited in death.

In addition, the prohibitive cost of burial in Germany, the small number of Muslim cemeteries and legal disagreements over the method of Muslim burial have made burial abroad more attractive for most Muslim families, says Mustapha El-Founti, who owns al-Rahma in Essen, one of Germany's largest funeral homes for Muslims.

According to El-Founti, transporting a corpse to Turkey or Morocco costs about €2,000 ($2,400), a third of the cost of a burial in Germany. But as the Muslim population in Germany becomes more entrenched, the desire to be buried elsewhere has begun to recede.

photo: AP
Dr. Nadeem Elyas

​​"Most Muslims have decided to remain in Germany permanently," says Nadeem Elyas, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. "Returning the dead to their home countries doesn't make sense because the family ties are here in Germany."

A resistance to Muslim cemeteries

But where to bury the dead? The only Islamic cemetery in Germany is in Berlin and was opened in 1866. But it is long since filled and attempts by Muslim groups to set up new graveyards have failed, said El-Founti.

"We made the city of Essen a proposal that we would buy the land ourselves and manage the cemetery. And we were told: 'absolutely not!' A cemetery is a municipal matter and cannot be passed on to private investors," said El-Founti.

In Germany, only a recognized public body or a lasting religious community as defined in the constitution can manage confessional cemeteries. Muslim groups, however, are only seen as non-permanent societies meaning they don't have the legal right to operate a cemetery. The administrative hitch is hard for Elyas to understand.

Why shouldn't an Islamic organization, an Islamic religious community, that has resided here for decades, operate a cemetery? It would relieve the municipalities," said Elyas.

Though municipalities have reached a compromise by setting up Muslim burial grounds like the one in Cologne, the Islamic burial procedure remains a further obstacle for Muslims.

Burial without a coffin

In the Islamic faith, the deceased are buried without a coffin, wrapped only in linen cloths. But across Germany a coffin is required and only a few town councils were willing to make exceptions to the rule.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, this law was recently changed. Individual communities can now decide for themselves whether to allow the coffin-free burial – much to the dismay of Germany's funeral industry.

"You have to consider that a funeral is a very dignified and solemn act, and the burial process is part of it," says Gernig, the head of the undertakers board. She points out how strange it would look if a family carried a body wrapped only in cloth to the gravesite.

"Of course, you also have to consider the hygienic aspects. The corpse can still discharge body fluids. So the coffin also fulfils a specific function," she said.

A solution for everyone

City authorities in Cologne, where the burial ground is located, have a similar position. Helmut Strack, who heads the city's Cemetery Department, says he cannot expect his personnel to carry a corpse, which has maybe been dead for a few days, wrapped in only linen cloths.

But he wants to find a solution that will make everyone happy. One possibility would be having the deceased in a coffin until it reaches the gravesite and then bedding it without the coffin. Some other cities, such as Essen and Aachen, already make such concessions.

"We have to find an arrangement that is just for everyone and the procedure has to take place so that no one is offended," Strack said. "We're talking about different cultures here."

Re-evaluating burial culture

In an effort to improve cultural sensitivity, undertakers are already being taught the entire spectrum of religions, rituals and customs during their vocational training in order to keep up with the changing needs of their future clients, said Gernig.

"We have fellow citizens from many different cultures and religions and we have to satisfy them, too," she said.

The growing sensitivity, as well as legislative changes like the one made in North-Rhine Westphalia are encouraging signs for Elyas.

"The government and the parties that have introduced these laws have tied them to their goal of integration," he says. "And this is a sign that politicians have recognized the signs of the times. It will certainly give Muslims a feeling of security and belonging."

Sabina Casagrande


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