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Islamic interments in Germany

On Fridays, Azmera drives through Frankfurt to the Heiligenstock cemetery –  where Muslims have also been interred since 1996. Once a week she visits her parents' grave, this time she has brought red begonias with her. When Azmera's father died seven years ago, it was immediately clear that he would be interred in Frankfurt. For the family, originally from Ethiopia, who fled first to Sudan and then to Germany, no longer had any connections with their home country. Azmera has been living in Frankfurt for 20 years and is now a mother of three; her religion is evident from the headscarf she wears.

Muslim burial grounds in the municipal cemetery

Muslim diversity is as apparent in the cityscape in this metropolis in Hesse as it is in the plot for Islamic interments, separated by trees and high hedges from the other part of the graveyard. People are buried here whose roots are in various parts of the world. Muslims from Turkey, for instance, and from Iran, Bosnia and Pakistan. The deceased are buried according to Islamic burial rites, that is, lying on their side with their faces towards Mecca. The graveyard is facing in the right direction (south east), but relatives cannot bury their dead there entirely in accordance with religious laws, for the Hesse Interment Law stipulates that coffins must be used.

Other Länder – such as Hamburg (since 1997), Schleswig-Holstein (2005) and Lower Saxony (2006) – have relaxed their laws to allow interments to take place in shrouds and have thereby accommodated the religious requirements of Muslim citizens. In North-Rhine Westphalia, the legislators allow the graveyard management to decide on the coffin stipulation.

Graveyard bye-laws prevent right of rest in perpetuity

The regulations also differ concerning periods of grave occupancy depending on the Land and local authority.  The  right of rest in perpetuity as is traditional in Islam is provided in the Federal Republic through so-called Wahlgräber, graves selected by the relatives. Depending on the graveyard bye-laws, these have an occupancy period of between 20 to 25 years, however this can be extended, in contrast to allocated graves (Reihengräber). Relatives can opt for allocated graves (Reihengräber) or selected graves (Wahlgräber) at most Muslim cemeteries. Not, however, in Aachen where has been a graveyard for Muslims since as far back as 1981 and where interments are permitted without coffins. However, on this plot, only Reihengräber  are available and their occupancy period expires after 25 years. "We must see what comes next," says Karl Keupen, Departmental Manager of the Aachen graveyards. For the occupancy period for the initial graves has actually already expired.

The usual practice in Islamic countries of interring the deceased within a day cannot be implemented in the Federal Republic for administrative reasons and also because of the statutory period that applies in most Länder, where a minimum of 48 hours must elapse between demise and interment. In Hamburg this stipulation is not as strictly adhered to. "If there are no medical reasons to prevent it, interment can take place earlier," explains Lutz Rehkopf, press spokesperson for Hamburg graveyards.

Emotional reasons determine the place of interment

Approximately 90 per cent of migrants of the Muslim faith who die in Germany are laid to rest in their countries of origin, primarily for emotional reasons. Those who came to Germany as guest workers did not feel at home here and therefore do not wish their final resting place to be on "foreign soil" but in their homeland. Muslim funeral directors say that transporting them is also preferred by relatives on grounds of cost. Yasar Yürük, who has been running a funeral company for ten years in the Rhine-Main area, explains: It costs between 2,000 and 2,500 euros for an interment in the homeland – the price also includes flights for two relatives. Interment is more expensive in Germany because there are also grave fees to pay, which are as much as 1,500 euros for Wahlgräber and these must be paid again once the 20 to 25 year period expires.

"Muslim interments are however increasing at local cemeteries," Yürük has recently found.This development is confirmed by graveyard authorities. "Initially, more babies were interred here than adults," reports Harald Hildmann, who is responsible for graveyards at Frankfurt City Council. In the case of adults, interments were mainly for refugees, who could not be transported back to their home country.

Integration is reflected in  grave design

The descendants of the guest worker generation are becoming increasingly settled, they want their relatives' graves near to them and to be buried themselves in Germany. The fact that Muslims are being buried here here, is reflected in the way the graves are designed. It is true that the gravestones in the Muslim sections have suras from the Koran and oriental ornamentation on them, but there is an increase in graves that conform to local graveyard aesthetics, bordered with plants and decorated with flowers or even watched over by angels.

The couple from Ethiopia has a plain grave with a wooden gravemarker on which only the dates of birth and death are engraved. And it is decorated with six red begonias, which Azmera has planted. "I will no doubt lie here too at some point," says the 38-year old who speaks with the local Hesse accent. Then she pulls her green headscarf on properly and picks up the rake to loosen the earth.

Canan Topçu, 06.08.2009

About the author: Canan Topçu is a former member of the German Islam Conference, editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau and a freelance journalist.

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