Muslims find a home, but few graves
"More and more people want to be buried here," said Samir Bouaissa, referring to the increasing number of Muslims who want to be buried in Germany after they die. Over 5 million of Germany's 83 million inhabitants are Muslim, and the number is growing.
Born in Morocco, fifty-year-old Bouaissa moved to the western German town of Wuppertal when he was just two. He is the chairman of the Wuppertal Muslim Cemeteries Association, which is planning to set up the first cemetery in Germany run exclusively by Muslim communities. "We started it in Wuppertal in 2008," said Bouaissa. "Even then it was clear that Germany needed Muslim burial grounds."
There are over 30,000 cemeteries in the country, one-third of which belong to Christian churches while the rest are run by municipalities. Each of the 16 federal states has extensive and distinct burial regulations.
Muslims at home in Germany
Bouaissa is a pioneer. More than six decades ago, the first so-called guest workers came to Germany from Turkey and then, in many cases, settled here for good. They held on to their religious and cultural traditions, but there were limited possibilities for Muslims to give their dead a proper burial in their new homeland.
There were many legal obstacles, as well as extensive and sometimes heated debates until the first federal states modified burial requirements and abandoned the strict requirement of a coffin; both Jewish and Muslim traditions rely on burial in a cloth and rule out cremation or reburial altogether.
In Germany, municipalities are required to provide burial fields or cemeteries wherever possible, but the competition for plots for Muslim graves in cemeteries is fierce.
In recent weeks, Berlin authorities have warned that cemeteries are reaching or have already reached capacity. And Bouaissa said that in many cities Muslims have had to find cemeteries in neighbouring municipalities.
Back to the old homeland – in a coffin
Nearly every day at the Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin-Tempelhof, run by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), Muslims bid farewell to their deceased relatives as an imam speaks the last prayers. Outside, parked hearses wait to take the coffins to the airport and onto a plane, often bound for Turkey.
Many first-generation immigrants want to be buried in their country of origin, and for several decades, DITIB has offered "funeral insurance" that covers all the costs associated with the transfer to Turkey and burial there. Bouaissa revealed that Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria offer similar deals.
The Federal Association of German Funeral Directors has also seen an increase in Muslim funerals. "This is a good thing, because the funeral culture is a mirror of society," says Stephan Neuser, the association's secretary-general. For years, the association has been calling for professional, standardised training for their trade, and Neuser believes this must include cultural considerations.
Multicultural graveyard in Berlin
Berlin's Turkish Cemetery is the oldest Muslim burial ground in Germany. It dates back to 1866, predating the founding of the German Empire in 1871. There are still some old gravestones that bear witness to this history. The cemetery reflects multicultural Berlin: there's a monument to German soldiers who died in World War I, next to graves of French soldiers, as well as German soldiers who served in southwestern Africa, the former German colony in what is now Namibia. But just a few steps away are gravestones inscribed with German transcriptions of Turkish or Arabic names like Ersin and Ibrahim, whose birthplaces were Istanbul, Beirut or Kabul.
Some of the Muslim gravestones resemble minarets or silhouettes of a mosque. They are more recent graves, from years and decades past. And not infrequently, the deceased were barely 20, 30 or 40 years old. Beside many graves there's the odd plastic chair. They are places to linger, to mourn, perhaps also to talk. Yet space is also limited on this burial ground. In January, the Berlin Senate announced it was planning to open new grave sites for Muslim burials in 2023 in "at least three more cemeteries".
Back in Wuppertal, Bouaissa, who is a local party representative of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union as well as the chairman of the North-Rhine Westphalian branch of the Central Council of Muslims, is part of an initiative backed by all political parties in the city council to tackle the current lack of burial options.
Essentially, as Bouiassa explains, the following applies to Muslim graves: Muslims practice coffinless burial (i.e. no cremations or urn burials). Where the deceased lies is seen as an eternal right: once buried, he or she may not be reburied. Bouaissa and his fellow campaigners have been trying to address the shortage of burial sites since 2008. "The need is there," he says. The emphasis in many families has long since changed; they want to have their deceased with them in Germany, in their new homeland. Unsurprisingly, the initiative has met with cross-party approval in the Wuppertal city council.
The proposal to open the first cemetery in Germany run by Muslims is a showcase initiative. The location for the planned cemetery is close to the city's oldest Protestant cemetery and also a new Jewish cemetery. "The three cemeteries are to share a forecourt with three funeral halls," said Bouissa. This could also serve as a meeting place for interested visitor groups, he added.
That's the plan. But for 15 years, Bouaissa has been dealing with red tape: expert opinions have to be gathered on landscaping, wildlife protection and even soil management. Currently, the stability of the entire site is being checked after the flooding in the summer of 2021 that also hit the Wupper valley. But Bouaissa believes matters will become even more urgent, given the hundreds of thousands of refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016, mainly from Syria.
"In many cases, these are people who will have no possibility at all to return to their home countries," he said.
That's why, eventually, they too will need to find graves in Germany.
© Deutsche Welle 2023