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Why are Germans sending their loved ones' ashes to Switzerland?

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Why are Germans sending their loved ones' ashes to Switzerland?
A cemetery in Zurich. Photo by Tomas Trajan on Unsplash

Swiss undertakers say a rising number of Germans are asking for their deceased loved ones' ashes to be sent to Switzerland. Here's why.

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What's happening?

Swiss funeral homes are increasingly carrying out jobs for bereaved families from Germany - particularly those in border regions, Swiss broadcaster SRF has reported. 

Berto Biaggi, who owns a funeral home in Gipf-Oberfrick, Aargau, a 10-minute drive from the German border, told how he is often commissioned by bereaved families in Germany to request the urns with the ashes of the deceased from his German colleagues. 

The urns can then be handed back to the family in Switzerland. 

"This has increased in the last 10 years," he told the broadcaster. Biaggi said he takes on this task six times more often today than previously. And he even receives requests from northern Germany.

READ ALSO: What to do when a foreigner dies in Germany

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Why are German families looking to Switzerland after death?

This phenomenon of Germans sending their deceased's ashes to Switzerland is due to a German burial law known as the "Friedhofszwang" or cemetery obligation. 

The 200-year-old rule bans coffins and urns from being buried anywhere other than a cemetery. It was originally passed to prevent outbreaks of disease.

Relatives in Germany do not, for example, usually receive the urn after cremation - it is handed over directly to cemetery management.

Some German states have tweaked this law slightly, so it can differ depending on where you live. Generally though, keeping an urn at home is strictly forbidden.

Südfriedhof cemetery in Leipzig, Germany.

Südfriedhof cemetery in Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Abenteuer Albanien on Unsplash

However, there is a little more freedom in Switzerland.

"Legally, the funeral in Switzerland is completed with the cremation," said Biaggi. "The state doesn't care what happens to the ashes afterwards."

That is why undertakers are allowed to hand the urns that they have requested from the German undertakers back to the bereaved families, who travel to Switzerland from Germany. 

"I hand them over with a little flower - and that's it," Biaggi said. This service, which makes burial outside a cemetery possible, costs 200 Swiss francs.

So what happens to the urns?

Theoretically, if Germans wanted to bury their loved ones outside a cemetery, this would have to take place in Switzerland (or somewhere else outside Germany) because of the 'graveyard obligation' in Germany.

But Biaggi said: "What the relatives do with the urn is largely beyond my knowledge. I'm not there when they bury it in Switzerland."

Many of those affected are likely to take the urn back to Germany after it has been handed over.

READ ALSO: 'Grabesruhe': What are Switzerland's strict rules around burials?

It is unclear how often bereaved families in Germany use the services of undertakers in Switzerland. Neither the Association of Swiss Funeral Services nor the Swiss Post Office has figures.

The German General Customs Directorate said that, unlike ashes, urns have to be "customs cleared" - i.e. declared - when they are re-imported into Germany. Thanks to a tax exemption, there are no costs involved.

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However, the German customs authorities say they will not stop people with their cremated loved ones whose last journey has taken them across the Swiss border, and this also applies to people who transport the urn privately.

The enforcement of the cemetery obligation is a matter for the federal states, they said. 

READ ALSO: How Germans are rethinking their way of death

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