Death and Dying in Germany

Information on how to proceed if you need to report the death of a family member in Germany. Also information on the repatriation of remains for a burial or cremation...

Germany's procedures and customs for handling death and funerals are quite different from those in many other countries. For some time the state has been responsible for burials and cremations. This is set to change as Germany is urged to harmonise its procedures with those of its European neighbours.

Be aware that laws and practices can differ throughout the country. The information below is intended as a guide to the normal procedure.

Initial Procedures

Under German law, prompt action must be taken at the time of a death. The transfer of a body to a mortuary must take place within 36 hours and cremation or burial must take place within 96 hours unless the deceased's remains are to be shipped overseas.

In the event of a death occurring in the home, a doctor should always be contacted. The doctor will confirm the date and time of death and fill out the death certificate (Todesbescheinigung). If death takes place in a hospital, the hospital will arrange for the death certificate to be completed. Only if there are any suspicious circumstances should the police be called.

Reporting and Registering the Death

The death must be reported to the local registrar (Standesamt). Often the family of the deceased do this themselves, but it may also be done by the funeral home. Take any relevant documentation, including:

  • Passport
  • Residency permit (if applicable)
  • It is also best to take the deceased person's birth certificate and marriage certificate (if available)

Expatriates may also wish to register the death with their consulate or embassy, although this is not compulsory. If asked to do so the embassy can issue a certificate of death abroad. This will be in the language of the home country and therefore may be useful if there is any chance that the German language death certificate will cause problems, for example with an insurance company. It can only be issued after the original German certificate has been received and is not a replacement for the original.

The German authorities will want to know if the next-of-kin is a German resident. If so they will contact them to inform them of the death (if they are not already aware) and offer their assistance.

Funeral Arrangements

Note that German funeral costs are high and many German citizens have specific insurance policies to cover these costs.

The funeral home will take care of the vast majority of the necessary arrangements. Embassies and consulates can provide details of these establishments or they can be found listed in the yellow pages under Beerdigungsinstitute. Embassies and consulates are also a useful source of information and general advice in the event of a death. Websites for English-speaking embassies are listed in Further Information. They are particularly useful to anyone wishing to repatriate a body. Many sites (such as the US Consulate sites) include links to English-speaking funeral homes.

Once a funeral home has been chosen, it will normally take care of all the details, including collecting the body, notifying the authorities (if the family has not already done so), arranging the supply of a coffin and/or urn, arranging the funeral service and the flowers (which are traditionally thrown on the coffin once it is in the ground), arranging probate and so on. They will also ask for proof of any insurance policies and if there is a will in place.

Embalming is almost always mandatory and was, until recently, only ever carried out in state hospitals. Some funeral homes are now authorised to perform this function. It is unusual for the funeral home to display the body although sometimes it may be displayed in a church. Customs differ from region to region and in some areas it is still common for friends and neighbours to dress the deceased before they go to the funeral home. Funerals take place between Monday and Friday and it is still traditional to wear black.

Cemeteries tend to be church or state operated but there are some exceptions such as Muslim groups who now have their own cemeteries. As with many other European countries, graves are "rented" for a period – often 20 to 30 years when the lease must be renewed or else the remains will be removed.

Cremation

Cremation is not as common as in many other countries although it has become more popular in recent times, partly due to cost. Ashes may only be buried in a cemetery and it is common to see very small plots in cemeteries purely for this purpose. In many cases cremations are carried out in state-operated crematoria. A small number of funeral homes have been given the authority to perform cremations and the number is growing. Under German law private individuals may not handle the remains, or even the ashes. There is therefore no option to take the ashes of a loved one home and scatter them in a place they loved, although in certain circumstances ashes may be taken out to sea.

Repatriation

If burial or cremation is to take place outside of Germany, the funeral home can take care of many of the arrangements. However, the initial registration of the death follows exactly the same procedures as those outlined above.

Embalming is compulsory if a body is to be shipped from Germany. Due to the high costs involved, remains are often repatriated only after cremation in Germany. Nevertheless, German law forbids the handling of remains by private individuals and so even the urn must be shipped, accompanied by the relevant paperwork. The crematorium or funeral home can assist with this.

Note: Recent changes to flight security means that many airlines are no longer prepared to carry closed coffins.

For foreign nationals, it is helpful to contact the relevant embassy or consulate in Germany as they will normally assist with repatriation (although not the costs involved). See the websites and links below. For UK citizens, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also has a detailed section on repatriation and how they can help British nationals.

Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

Active euthanasia is explicitly banned under German law and is in fact treated as a criminal offence. The situation regarding passive euthanasia and assisted suicide is less clear cut.

The Government has talked about introducing new legislation to make things more explicit and to punish those who assist with suicide. However, public opinion seems to be divided with many citizens sympathetic to the cause in the case of terminal illness. Government and public alike seem to agree on the need for more money to be spent on palliative care and hospices.

The Church in Germany is strongly opposed to both euthanasia and assisted suicide and this teaching tends to be followed. In addition, the German medical profession is almost unanimously opposed to assisted suicide and therefore anyone contemplating either method to end their life normally leaves Germany to find assistance.

Under much controversy the Swiss organisation Dignitas opened its first office in Germany a few years ago. It provides advice and information but will not provide any drugs for the purpose of assisted suicide. There is also a German Society for Dying with Dignity (DGHS) which has over 35,000 members.

Further Information
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