Temporary Graves

Being a very small country, real estate is extremely expensive in Switzerland. Still, many foreigners from the Americas are surprised when they learn just how far this constraint takes the country when it comes to burials.

I had already learned about the temporary nature of Swiss graves before my MIL’s sudden passing, but had I not, it would have made things very difficult to understand during the week that we arranged her funeral because we had some choices to make that would affect how long we have a grave to visit.In Switzerland, graves are usually “rented” for a period of 10 to 20 years. Different grave sites have different periods of rental beyond that and it is generally not possible to prolong the period of burial by buying more time.

What does this mean?

Whether people are laid to rest in an individual grave or a mass grave, after the time period is up, it is possible that a newer death and burial will bump older burials out of the memorial site as a need for space arises.

We had already visited the family grave site together with my MIL a couple years ago to see where Kay’s grandparents are laid to rest. Now they have already torn out two rows of graves next to his grandparents to make space for new burials.

In a couple years, Kay’s grandparents’ graves will also be dismantled and renewed for new arrivals. His uncle who died young at 42 is in the same row, and in a few years, my FIL won’t be able to visit his brother’s grave anymore either.

How does this affect funeral decisions?

To us, it meant that my FIL had to make the decision between burying my MIL in the family grave site where she stated that wished to be laid to rest for a period of ten years or burying her closer to his house with a grave that would be secure for twenty years.

My FIL was asking himself what happens in ten years when he is turning 70 and he cannot visit his wife’s grave anymore? It’s a sad thing to think about, but it’s a fact of life in Switzerland.  Ultimately he decided to go with the family grave site still because he wanted to lay her to rest where she said she wanted to be, in the way that she desired.

What do they do with the remains of old graves?

To my knowledge, if people are buried without cremating, they are then cremated and moved to a mass grave. If they were already cremated and in the mass grave, I think the remains stay there, but any “packaging” like the urn or anything is removed or destroyed to make way for new burials and their name is removed from the current plaque on the mass grave.

My MIL was buried in the mass grave already because she did not want to be alone in death and my FIL already stated that it is more practical to go in the mass grave because it is cheaper. My MIL is the first new name on a stone with about nine other inhabitants of the mass grave, with deaths ranging from the 90’s until now. If few or no people wish to be buried in this particular spot, it is possible that her memorial plaque will remain there for more than 10 years.

What about death records?

Just because graves are recycled does not mean that there is not a good if not better system of death records than a country like the US. Everything is entered into a record, also when graves are recycled and none of the information about genealogy is lost. It is just a practical matter of space.

What is the point of burying someone in Switzerland or Europe?

The whole point of the grave is to have a place where loved ones can physically mourn their loss. After 10, 20 or even 50 years, the government considers that people should have made peace with their loss and if they want to remember their loved one further, they need to do it in their own way and not with a physical grave.

It does make sense considering how small Switzerland and how populated the continent is in general. If we compare to the US, how many graves are set up and forgotten for years and years afterward? It is also a bit depressing to think of the mass of graves that are unattended, no longer cared for, and completely forgotten about.

At least in Switzerland when you “rent” your grave, it is meticulously cared for during the period of time meant to appreciate it and after that, we are meant to let go. After all, none of us will be here forever and eventually we will all become part of the Earth again.

3 thoughts on “Temporary Graves”

  1. I can honestly say I’ve never considered the lack of space for these sorts of things in smaller countries. Aside from the graves (mass or otherwise), are mausoleum’s common in Switzerland? (After all, if you can’t build out, build up.) And does this, I wonder, increase the number of families who opt to receive the cremated remains in an urn for display at home as opposed to interment of any sort?

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