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Zurich breathes new life into old graves

Plenty of space under the ground for anyone interested swissinfo.ch

Officials in Zurich are promising that deceased residents need no longer fear eternal solitude if they take up an unusual burial offer in the city’s cemeteries.

This content was published on May 22, 2004 - 11:59

For a small fee, individuals can reserve an underground spot for themselves inside long-forgotten family tombs.

Switzerland’s largest city has been renting out prime plots of graveyard real estate for eight years and the number of people taking the authorities up on the offer continues to rise.

The scheme - unique in Switzerland - was launched in the 1990s as part of efforts to stop centuries-old family graves and tombstones from falling into disrepair.

The authorities levy an annual charge of between SFr30 ($23) and SFr50 per square metre of rented space. The fee includes upkeep and maintenance of the tombstone.

Family graves

According to Zurich-based historian Meinrad Huber, the tradition of the communal grave shared by successive generations began to die off as families grew apart.

“Family members tend to be scattered across Switzerland and indeed the world,” says Huber, “and because people are usually laid to rest wherever they happened to be living, many family graves [back home] were simply abandoned.”

The authorities found that the only way of preventing an increasing number of important historic tombstones and family memorials from crumbling was to rent space beneath them.

Huber has spent the best part of a decade campaigning to ensure that Zurich’s 19th century cemeteries are preserved as an important part of the city’s heritage.

“Every cemetery reflects the history of the local population and acts as a window on society at all its levels,” says Huber.

Tomb with a view

Requests for a tomb with a view - such as Lake Zurich - are welcomed and the authorities try to be as accommodating as possible.

“The choice is vast. There are many graves that can be rented and it’s always possible to find a pleasant spot,” says Huber.

Officials are quick to point out that they are not in the business of digging up old family graves to find space for newcomers.

Since turn-of-the-century tombs were invariably built well below ground level, the new generation of deceased are simply laid to rest one level above those who have been six feet under for a century or more.

Huber says demand for space inside old family graves is not likely to wane any time soon.

“People are still looking for ways to cheat death, but that’s not going to be possible for some time to come.”

Try a tree

If an illustrious old grave does not appeal, Zurich residents also have the option of renting a tree around which a loved one’s ashes can be buried.

The city’s cremation and funeral authority said the scheme had been put in place in response to a growing number of requests from people looking for alternative forms of burial.

The recently departed are also entitled to a funeral service next to the tree, either with or without a priest.

Unusually for Switzerland, Zurich offers free funerals - including the permanent use of a strictly no-frills coffin - to all residents who die in the city.

swissinfo, Brigitta Javurek

In brief

The annual rental charge for space in an old grave ranges from SFr30 to SFr50 per square metre per year.

All Zurich residents are entitled to a free funeral if they die in the city.

Funeral service directors in the city count on around 4,000 deaths in Zurich every year.

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