German Funerals: Traditions, Etiquette, & What to Expect

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Understanding proper funeral etiquette is something virtually everyone should prioritize. Death is a universal human experience. Most people will attend several funerals in their lifetime. That’s why many consider it important to know what to wear at a funeral, how to offer condolences, and more.

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However, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as universal funeral etiquette. Different cultures lay their dead to rest in different ways. 

Maybe you’re attending a German funeral soon. If so, you might wonder what to expect. This guide will help by explaining common German funeral customs and etiquette.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual German funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like wakes, prayers, and traditional music, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.

German Views of Death and Dying

Popular ideas about German culture depict it as strict, regulated, and efficient. While this is in many ways a generalization about a culture that’s incredibly dynamic and rich, it’s a fair description of the way Germans traditionally handle death.

The German funeral industry is one of the most highly-regulated in the world. The country enforces numerous laws regarding what should happen when a person dies. For instance, even if a person is cremated, according to German law, their loved ones (or whoever is handling the funeral arrangements) must still “bury” them in a cemetery in most cases. The government is also typically responsible for embalming and cremating a body.

Scholars believe this rigid approach to saying goodbye to the dead stems from a popular belief among Germans. In recent history, German culture has emphasized the value of a “good death,” or putting a person to rest respectfully. The country’s funeral and burial laws ensure most people get this treatment.

In general, researchers also state that German culture discourages getting too emotional about death. Germans traditionally see death realistically, accepting its inevitability. They know they can’t avoid death, so they take steps to make the process as structured and ceremonial as they can. Because religion has long played a major role in German culture, they also tend to avoid funeral or burial practices that might conflict with religious beliefs.

For instance, although cremation is becoming more popular in Germany, up until recently, it wasn’t common at all. This is because Catholicism emphasizes the idea that the flesh is eternal. The body is more than just a vessel, so cremating it would be improper. However, changing religious beliefs and shifting values among younger Germans have ushered in some loosening of the restrictions.

ยป MORE: After a loss, you're never alone. Get the help you need with this planning checklist.

 

What Happens at a German Funeral?

Not all German funerals are exactly the same. There’s no way to guarantee a German funeral you attend will match the description here. That said, because German culture regulates funerals and burials so thoroughly, many traditions are common. They include:

German funeral service

A typical German funeral service isn’t very different from one you might attend in the United States. Mourners gather to lay the dead to rest with songs and prayers. However, there are some key differences. For instance, German customs typically don’t allow open-casket viewings or last goodbyes.

Some Germans are breaking tradition, holding unique funeral services in locations ranging from forests to the coast. This is partially due to costs. Germany’s regulations make traditional funerals very expensive. Some younger families opt to do away with what they consider “old-fashioned” rituals in favor of something less rigid and costly.

The process of arranging a funeral service in Germany can also vary depending on a family’s preferences. Many German families place importance on handling tasks such as sending out invitations and choosing a casket or urn. However, plenty of others allow the funeral home to handle all these tasks.

Popular songs and prayers

The German way of burying the dead emphasizes the importance of structure and ritual. It might surprise you that popular German funeral song choices began departing from tradition in a big way starting in the 1990s.

According to Marcell Feldberg, the music consultant for the German Institute of Undertakers, families are now more likely to choose personal funeral songs. Popular choices include “I Will Always Love You” (specifically the Whitney Houston version) and “Only Time” by Enya.

That’s not to say all Germans do away with tradition and religion when putting loved ones to rest. Some German funerals still include hymns. It’s also common to combine prayers and songs by reciting old prayers in the form of Gregorian chants. “Requiem aeternam” (Eternal Rest) is a prayer you might hear sung at a German funeral. Other common religious songs include “Kyrie” and “Agnus Dei.” 

What Happens After a German Funeral?

German funeral customs share many similarities with funeral customs from other cultures. These similarities continue after the funeral ceremony.

Burial and cremation

The focus on structure and regulation doesn’t end when the funeral service is over. If a family chooses to cremate a body, the funeral home will typically handle the process. In most parts of the country (with only a few recent exceptions), laws prohibit funeral homes from handing the cremains over to the family.

Instead, the funeral home retains possession of the cremains, ensuring they properly transport them to the cemetery for burial. If they’re not going to cremate the body, the funeral home will still usually handle transporting it to the cemetery.

It’s worth noting that traditional religious beliefs inspired many of Germany’s laws regarding funerals, at least to some degree. Their funerals reflect this. Like in America, a religious figure will often recite sermons at German burials. This typically happens at the gravesite.

Something unique

Although German traditions of putting the dead to rest mirror those of other Western countries in a variety of ways, there are some interesting (and potentially surprising differences) worth touching on.

For example, because Germany is a populous country, and because laws require burial of an urn or casket, most Germans don’t actually purchase burial plots. Instead, they lease or rent them, usually for about 20 years. This gives the body time to decompose fully. It also ensures there’s room for future burials.

Food and drink

Germans commonly invite all those who attended a funeral to a reception and meal immediately after the burial.

This serves two purposes. One, it helps people focus on more positive emotions after what may have been a draining experience. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds mourners that life will go on, and they can keep their loved one’s spirit alive by spending time with those whose lives they touched. Germans call this Leichenschmaus, which roughly translates to “funeral meal” or “corpse feast.”

The food served typically consists of popular German cuisine. That said, many also include Zuckerkuchen, a cake that Germans serve at christenings and funerals.

German Funeral Etiquette

Practicing proper funeral etiquette is important for many reasons. You want to make sure you’re respectful when mourning a loved one with family and friends. Luckily, German funeral etiquette isn’t very complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

What to wear

Choosing clothing for a German funeral shouldn’t be too difficult if you’ve already attended funerals in the US or other Western countries. Mourners usually wear formal clothing and dark colors.

This is particularly important if the person you’re mourning was a close relative. Close relatives should try to wear black to a German funeral. Many also wear sunglasses.

Offering condolences

Every family is different. If you’re attending the funeral of someone whose family you’re very close with, you might want to trust your judgment when determining the best way to offer condolences. They may not behave the way “average” Germans do when putting a loved one to rest.

That said, German culture generally discourages major displays of emotion at funerals. You can respectfully and formally let someone know you’re sorry for their loss, but you probably shouldn’t behave too emotionally if you can help it. 

German Funerals: A Focus on Tradition

Regardless of your culture or nationality, following an established process for saying goodbye to a loved one can help you celebrate their life and begin the process of moving on.

It can also help you respectfully lay someone to rest. These points indicate Germans have understood this universal truth for decades. Their structured approach to funerals and burials reflects this.


Sources

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  2. Cahalan, Susannah. “Bizarre funeral rituals from around the world.” New York Post, NYP Holdings, Inc. 28 October 2017, nypost.com/2017/10/28/the-shocking-funeral-rituals-that-take-place-around-the-world/
  3. Case, Jack E. “Care of the Dead Reflects Views of Life.” Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University, 16 February 1982, library.ndsu.edu/grhc/articles/newspapers/news/nd/bismarck_tribune/care_of_dead.html
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  5. Fulker, Rick. “Helmut Kohl's funeral: a musical guide.” Deutsche Welle, Deutsche Welle, 1 July 2017, www.dw.com/en/helmut-kohls-funeral-a-musical-guide/a-39494084
  6. Heinzelmann, Ursula. “Food Culture in Germany.” Greenwood Press, 2008, Print.
  7. Mackay, Emily. “Why My Way is the most popular funeral song.” BBC Music, BBC, 20 May 2019, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190520-why-my-way-is-the-most-popular-funeral-song
  8. McLaughlin, Tara. “Death Customs in Germany.” Michigan State University, 3 July 2015, anthropology.msu.edu/anp270-us15/2015/07/23/activity-3-death-customs-in-germany-tara-mclaughlin/
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