The secret of Swiss cemeteries

October 31, 2011, 19 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.

19 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. 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.

  4. 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 [email protected]

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Shahryar Jabrallah Tuesday September 19th, 2017 at 03:24 PM · Reply

    Dear all

    I am really touched by your comments as all of us we have lost our beloved ones in one of these cemeteries in Switzerland. I am tracing my grandfather who died in Switzerland . it seems like a mission impossible because i could not get information regarding his grave till now. I live in Sheffield -England , two hours by train from London . north of England.

    I would be very grateful for anyone who could help me with any information regarding to whom to contact or any useful websites contacts and emails of the people how can help me in this regards

    I am looking forward to hearing from you

    you can contact me on my email which is [email protected] also through my UK mobile number 00447459755223

    best regards

    Shahryar Jabrallah

  9. mary Saturday November 25th, 2017 at 01:06 PM · Reply

    Just disrespectful…..what about vertical cemeteries?!?!

  10. Claree “Cookie” Ballew Sunday April 28th, 2019 at 12:16 AM · Reply

    Makes good sense to me especially after 25 yrs. I assume the body is totally decomposed. I plan on being cremated which is distasteful to some people, but even Catholics which I was born are.allowing it now. I made my 1st visit to Switzerland in 2017 and it is a beautiful country!!! I plan to return in 2019 as part of a Rhine River Cruise..

  11. Nancy Clewell Saturday June 6th, 2020 at 07:02 PM · Reply

    This explains quite a bit about why I have been unable to locate my Aunt’s family in Hallau by the name of Rupli. I have several photos and funeral cards for the Rupli family originating and taken in Switzerland. We visited in 2018 and remarked about the beauty of the cemeteries but had no notion that they were only 25 years old at the most. Makes sense and helps clear up a mystery of where the Rupli ancestors remains are. Thank you for sharing this article.

  12. Peggy Hartwell Monday August 24th, 2020 at 11:55 PM · Reply

    We visited Glarus Switzerland in 2012, looking for family history. We visited an old cemetery there and was so surprised to find no graves older than 25 years. We stopped at a local store and the owners explained graves are no older than 25 years, but had no further information. Thank you for the explanations. They graves really are beautiful and well cared for. I would love to make another trip to Switzerland and spend more time.

  13. Muller von elgg Sunday September 13th, 2020 at 09:02 AM · Reply

    This works well for the Swiss calvinists, but the Catholics must hate it. As limited as space is, you can always find plenty of locations for burying people. Build a crypt in a mountain, in existing church yards. They can use the money.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Following the recycling rules | Diccon Bewes
  2. Cemeteries in Zürich - Sound and Silence, the Living and the Dead
  3. לחיות ולמות ביחד או לחוד? | שמתי לב
  4. Cemetery Overcrowding is Leading Europe to Recycle Burial Plots | TalkDeath
  5. Cemetery Feldli - This is my Saint Gallen

Leave a Comment