“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.
Fifty-year-old Bouaissa was born in Morocco but moved to the western German town of Wuppertal 48 years ago. He is the chairman of the association Muslim Cemeteries Wuppertal, which is planning to set up the first cemetery in Germany run exclusively by Muslim communities.
“We started it in Wuppertal in 2008,” Bouaissa told DW. “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 cemeteries is fierce.
In recent weeks, Berlin authorities warned that cemeteries are reaching or have already reached their capacity limits. And Bouaissa said that in many cities Muslims have had to find cemeteries in neighboring 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 say 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 told DW 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,” Stephan Neuser, the association’s secretary general, told DW. For years, the association has been calling for professional, standardized training for their trade, and Neuser believes this must include cultural considerations.
Why is it so difficult for Muslims to be buried in Germany?
Multicultural gravesite in Berlin
The Turkish Cemetery Berlin 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.
But 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 center-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.
The proposal, to open the first cemetery in Germany run by Muslims, is to serve as a model. 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 that also hit the Wupper valley in the summer of 2021.
But Bouaissa believes matters will become even more urgent, given the hundreds of thousands of refugees who came to 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 will also need to find burial sites in Germany.