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The secret of Swiss cemeteries

October 31, 2011, 12 Comments

Are Swiss cemeteries the most beautiful in the world? Possibly, though it depends on your definition of beauty.Like much of Swiss life, graveyards are strictly controlled and immaculately maintained. They certainly never have that centuries-of-moss look of English country churchyards or forest-of-graves appearance of city cemeteries in London or Paris. Instead, regimented rows have neatly planted flowers and clean headstones. All very Swiss. But it took me a while to see past the pristine prettiness and uncover the secret of Swiss cemeteries.

Very few graves are older than 25 years. Walk around almost any Swiss cemetery and the only old headstones you’ll see are the ones on family graves, which tend to hold generations of relatives. All the others will have death dates within the last 25 years. After that, the graves are dug up and the site re-used. It may sound unsentimental and even shocking, but it’s immensely practical in a small country where space is at a premium. No point in wasting precious land on the dead; far better to use it for the living. That’s all very well until you happen to see graves being dug up, as I did recently in Bern. Not something that I ever expected to witness, and rather disturbing to my English sensibilities. Then again, we are a nation that has pet sections in our cemeteries.

Graves are rented (or at least the space is) for 25 years and then it’s out with the old, in with the new. Families often buy the space, or rent it on a very long-term basis, so that they can all be re-united in the end. Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zurich is a good place to see some handsome family graves – it’s large enough (the second largest cemetery in Switzerland!) to have the room for residents to stay longer than quarter of a century. For most other people, once the grave is dug up, the headstone is returned to the family or recycled by being broken up into gravel chips, although Schosshalden cemetery in Bern has an outdoor museum of gravestones as a way of preserving different styles.  As for the bones, if any are left, sometimes you find ossuaries with stacks of skulls and femurs, otherwise who knows? Maybe they are ground down into fertiliser?

If you’re wondering why I’ve been hanging around dead people, it’s not because tomorrow is All Saints’ Day. In the Catholic parts of Switzerland it’s a public holiday, intended to remember the dead or go and visit loved ones’ graves. I’m sure many good Catholics do just that, but more than a few seem to go shopping instead; Protestant cantons love all these Catholic holidays because it’s good for business. No, I visited more than my share of graveyards in the name of research, looking for dead celebrities, such has Heidi author Johanna Spyri (buried in Sihlfeld) or English actor Charlie Chaplin (in Corsier-sur-Vevey). This post has a list of famous dead foreigners in Switzerland.

While I was in Schosshalden, tracking down Paul Klee’s grave, I was intrigued by what looked like a war cemetery: row upon row of identical graves, all with plain stone crosses. Not a sight you expect to see in the world’s most neutral country, and on closer inspection, it became even more unusual: every single grave was of an old woman. Exactly the opposite of all the ones in northern France. Either this was a very strange war indeed, one where only women in their eighties died, or something mysterious was going on. It turned out to be nothing more sinister than the graves from an order of nuns (Diakonissen Sisters) who are buried as they lived, side-by-side. And even they all get recycled after 25 years. Incidentally, if the thought of re-using graves makes you squeamish, remember that Schosshalden was opened in 1877 to replace the city cemetery – and that is now the Rosengarten. All those pretty flowers and beautiful views were once only enjoyed by the dead.

So next time you’re in a Swiss village, be sure to visit the cemetery. Not only is it a peaceful, restful place but it gives you a tiny insight into the Swiss view of life. And death.

12 Comments on "The secret of Swiss cemeteries"

  1. David Rose Monday October 31st, 2011 at 01:02 PM · Reply

    Another nice slice of Swiss life – or death. Thanks. Fascinating…

  2. O.R. Tuesday November 1st, 2011 at 02:52 PM · Reply

    Very interesting! It makes so much sense on the one hand but of course the idea of recycling graves would not go down well here (Ireland) at all.
    I think I read about a similiar situation in Greece, with emigrants who want to be buried at home in Greece, but there just isn’t/wasn’t enough room. Very timely given the recent hoopla about the 7th billionth baby. 🙂

    • Yasemin Tuesday June 5th, 2012 at 09:26 AM · Reply

      I love your post. We used to attend a chcurh that put flags on all of the graves of service men and women. I loved seeing all of the flags on the graves. God bless all who are serving and have served out country. Carla

  3. Fergus Miller Friday November 4th, 2011 at 12:51 AM · Reply

    Question Diccon: Why to the famous graves not get recycled? I’m guessing that’s bad for tourism!
    My brother in law died young sadly as a result of cancer, family have the right to rent his space after the “25” years is up, I guess it’s because a lot of his family will still be alive in 25 years & wish to pay their respect while they are still alive, it’s not all about wishing to be with them when they are dead. & BTW Diccon the dead don’t enjoy anything as far as I know! I guess you were being ironic again 😉

  4. Robin Schwer Sunday September 30th, 2012 at 05:48 PM · Reply

    Thank you for the inside information. I have been wondering for over 20 yrs when I visited Switzerland. I was puzzled by how close the headstones were together and didn’t know how they would bury folks so close. Wondering if they were all cremated or layered or what? The whole country was beautiful to me. But I always questioned the graveyard I saw. Thank you for the very informative information.

  5. Theresa Skrutowski Tuesday July 29th, 2014 at 03:43 PM · Reply

    I believe that my wish to be buried in Switzerland would be a dream come true after my death.
    The 25 years lease would be fine with me.
    Don’t know where to start to purchase such a cemetery plot.

    email if you know a contact terry007@genccorp.com

  6. Judy Hewitt Tuesday June 9th, 2015 at 09:48 PM · Reply

    I just returned from a trip to Saanen and Gstaad Switzerland. I went to the church cemetery in Saanen looking for ancesters; however, I was surprised that none of the graves were over 25 years old. I wondered if they recycled the graves, since the church had been there for hundreds of years and the graves were so new. Thanks.

  7. John F . Smithies Wednesday December 23rd, 2015 at 01:42 AM · Reply

    My sister Dolores, died in 2004, in Key Biscayne,
    Florida and as per her wishes, she was buried
    In the cemetery in Saanen. Although born in
    the United States, she grew up in Cuba, and
    through marriage became a Swiss citizen.
    She spent over 30 summers in Gstaad living
    at Chalet Al Bosco and loved so very much
    Switzerland and its people.
    My Mother, who recently celebrated her 101
    birthday had been going to Gstaad since the
    1930’s. It is an honor for her to be buried there.

  8. David Johnson Tuesday April 11th, 2017 at 11:01 PM · Reply

    I had a distant cousin who lived in Zurich; visited her often. She passed away sometime after 1996, I believe. I have yet to find out when or where she is buried. Her name was Nina Blank (Blanc), maiden name Dietrich. Her husband was named Roland Blank; a son, Ernie, born about 1930, had lived in Texas for a while; have lost track of them.

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