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Traditional burial practices lose ground

Keystone/Martin Rütschi

For many deceased, the cemetery is no longer their “final resting place”. Scattering ashes out in the open, burying the urn in a forest or even compressing the ashes into a diamond – the list of possibilities is long.

Funeral rites have become increasingly diverse as people move away from tradition and respond to new practices of spirituality.

If Switzerland is rare among European countries in allowing a large amount of freedom to families and loved ones following a death, the country, along with the Czech Republic, also has one of the highest rates of cremation – 80 per cent – on the continent, according to the research centre for religion at Lucerne University.

“In about 20 per cent of cases of incineration, the ashes are scattered in the open,” Edmond Pittet, director of General Funeral Services in Lausanne told “It’s not a problem for the environment because these days they [the ashes] are very fine.”

This freedom of expression perhaps explains the relative benevolence of Switzerland as regards non-traditional spiritual rites.

“Society evolves notably by its migrants,” notes Julie Montandon, a religious sociologist from the inter-cantonal Centre for Information on Beliefs in Geneva. And it is the movement of migrants which ensures different beliefs in the community are in constant evolution and new funeral rituals regularly appear.

Following customs

Montandon gives the example of the Japanese group “Sukyo Mahikari” which has 800,000 members around the world, including 350 in Switzerland. The cult “offers practices which are close to Shintoism and Buddhism, so close to the values of Japanese society, but not only those. It’s first and foremost a so-called therapeutic group,” she says.

Religious rites previously not recognised in Switzerland have recently received official authorisation. In June, Lucerne accepted the practice of a modified version of Hindu funeral rites and Hindus are now allowed to throw the ashes of their dead into the River Reuss. Other cities too, like Bern and Zurich, also allow this practice.

“But a lot of Hindus who decide to practise this rite in Switzerland do so with the fear of doing something illegal, or of being misunderstood,” explained Saseetharen Ramakrishna Sarma, a Hindu priest in Lucerne.

“Today, a lot of Hindus decide to return to their homeland in order to carry out the ritual in its entirety. It’s not a simple thing and it’s expensive.”

Avoiding further tragedy

“It’s about allowing each inhabitant of this country to do what he/she feels is necessary to ensure a ‘good death’. So it’s fundamental to allow Hindus to continue their burial traditions,” says Clivaz.

Where things run into trouble, according to Clivaz, is when we forget that “we are citizens of a culture. That beyond our individual ideas, we also have a collective cultural heritage, which joins us together in moments of crisis, such as bereavement.”

“As a pastor, I have come across many ‘traumas’ in relation to ashes,” she says, mentioning the story of “a young girl aged 16, who didn’t want to return to the family chalet in the mountains, because they had spread the ashes of her grandfather and uncle in the garden and she felt ‘haunted’ by them there”.

The search for funeral ceremonies of a different kind implies the rejection of traditional religious methods, although this should be taken in the context of a broader contemporary alienation from religion.

“Today, more than one-third of people do not want a pastor or priest, but a non-religious service which will be led by a friend or other person,” said Pittet. “A small minority of people don’t want any kind of ceremony at all.”

Rejection of church

Traditional churches no longer have the “monopoly” on funeral rites, said Julien Abegglen Verazzi, a secular funeral celebrant, a profession increasingly common in Britain and the United States.

“The churches respond to the needs of a lot of people but they have also left a lot of people out,” said Verazzi.

People engaging his services include divorcees, people who have turned to other forms of spirituality or married people of other cultures. When they die, those close to them do not consider a Catholic or Protestant ceremony to be an appropriate farewell.

François-Xavier Amherdt, professor of pastoral theology and religious education at Fribourg University, while admitting to a “decline in demand”, says: “Among the celebrations offered by ‘historic churches’ to accompany important moments in life, it is without doubt the funerals which are still the most sought after by people today.”

“As such, the churches are being provoked to renew their language and the manner of conducting them, while continuing to draw on Christian history and tradition. Priests and pastors are open diverse forms,” all the more so because “the Catholic and Protestant rituals allow for a lot of room to manoeuvre, if it is well applied”.

Whether they are consecrated by a church or secular, modern celebrants are more and more calling on the families and friends to contribute to and create funeral ceremonies.

“Well-known gestures, such as putting a flower on the grave or throwing earth on to the coffin, reassure us. Other cultures recognise this, often better than we do,” said Clivaz.

According to a report by the National Research Programme on religious groups, Switzerland has 5,734 religious communities, equivalent to about 7.5 for 10,000 people.

According to the Federal Statistics Office 38.8 per cent of the Swiss population declared themselves as Roman Catholics in the 2010 census, 30.9 per cent as Protestant, 4.5 per cent as Muslims and 0.2 per cent Jewish. 20.1 per cent of the population declared having no religious affiliation.

Before authorising Hindus (of whom there are an estimated 40,000 in Switzerland) to scatter the ashes of their loved ones in the River Reuss, local authorities in Lucerne consulted the Catholic and Protestant churches, which agreed to allow the practice.

The cantonal environment and energy office confirmed that the practice did not pose a danger to the water quality but fixed a symbolic limit of 20 funeral rites per year. The city estimates between five to ten such funeral rituals take place each year.

“Like all immigrants adapting to a new country, it is important for Hindus to be able to practise their religion and faith in Switzerland while adapting to the culture here,” said Martin Baumann, director of religious studies at Lucerne University.

Head of integration in Lucerne, Sibylle Stolz, said: “It’s about guaranteeing equal rights of religions and recognising their diversity. By doing so we are saying to Hindus ‘you are members of our society’”. And by clearly declaring that the rite is legal, we are letting people know that it is something normal.”

In Switzerland, unlike in other countries, there is no legal prescription concerning the usage of ashes of a deceased person, according to the internet site It is possible to keep them at home, to scatter them, or to bury them in the ground as long as it is not on the private property of another person.

Several communes as well as some individual people propose the rental of a tree for an undefined period, under which people may bury the urns containing the ashes of their loved ones. This is permitted in the Forêt du Souvenir de Glovelier in the Jura.

In Zurich, one of the first cities to instigate this kind of memorial in the beginning of the 2000s, two forests close to cemeteries have “communal” trees for several urns, or family trees rented for 30 years. Candles and plaques are not allowed.

(Translated from French by Sophie Douez)

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