What is a Ruhefrist, and what rules are there regarding burials in Germany?
Once a beloved person has been buried, it is important for them, but also for their friends and family, that they can finally rest in peace. In Germany the term Ruhefrist, or burial period, describes the period of time within which a grave cannot be re-used after a burial.
The laws regarding re-use of grave sites are set out in the burial and cemetery laws for each German state, and the minimum burial period is set between 8 and 50 years. There are also a variety of other factors that determine how long the burial period can last.
What types of burials are available?
To begin, it is important to realize that there are various different types of burials available. For the moment, lets consider the classic burial, in a cemetery in the soil. You can choose between an assigned burial site, a selected burial site, or an urn burial site (Reihengrab, Wahlgrab, Urnengrab). The option you select also determines the amount of time your loved one can be buried at the site, and will vary depending on the cemetery. Urn burial sites are usually reserved for 10 to 20 years, and graves are usually reserved for 20 to 30 years, although you may have the option of applying to extend this time period. The ground conditions at the cemetery site may also play a role in determining the length of the burial period. The rules are designed to ensure that the body has completely decomposed and become one with the soil before the grave-site is re-used. This ensures that the deceased is left to rest in peace until they have become one with nature.
What happens after the burial period is up and what do they do with the grave?
Once the burial period is up, and assuming no extension has been granted, the grave is removed. This means that relatives or friends remove any ornaments at the grave site and the headstone, including its base, is removed by a stonemason. The grave site is then leveled to be used again. If bones or other small remains are found while the new grave is being dug for the next occupant, they are respectfully returned to the soil. If, when digging the new grave, cemetery workers discover that the body has not fully decomposed, then they will cover the grave immediately and it will be left alone until decomposition has take place. You can therefore rest assured that bodies are never dug up or prevented from finding peace by becoming one with nature again.
Germany also allows for exceptions for unlimited burial periods, which are usually granted for religious reasons. Islam, but also Judaism and Christianity, place particular importance on eternal rest. Some cemeteries and burial grounds, therefore, guarantee that a grave site will only ever be used once – but whether or not this option is on offer is very dependent on the capacity and regulations set out by the relevant cemetery administration.