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Funeral customs: Switzerland

Throughout Europe, funeral customs differ from country to country, and Switzerland is no different to this, standing out as one of the countries with a high rate of cremation – around 80 per cent.

Because of an increase in migration in Switzerland, the large influx of people from other countries has also seen a change in religious beliefs. 

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. Around 20.1 per cent of the population declared having no religious affiliation.

This has contributed to the increase in cremations with Hindus allowed to scatter ashes into the River Reuss in Lucerne. Other cities, such as Bern and Zurich, also allow this practice.

Lucerne's River Ruess, where Hindus are
allowed to scatter ashes.

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

The environment and energy office confirmed the practice did not pose a danger to the water quality but fixed a limit of 20 funeral rites per year. 

The city estimates between five to 10 such funeral rituals take place each year. Rather than spreading the ashes in a river, some people keep them at home, or choose somewhere private to scatter them, or bury them in the ground as long as it is not on the private property of another person.

Some people rent a tree for an undefined period, under which people bury the urns containing the ashes of their loved ones. 

In Zurich, one of the first cities to instigate this kind of memorial early this century, two forests close to cemeteries have ‘communal’ trees for several urns, or family trees rented for 30 years. Candles and plaques are not allowed.

Many people in Switzerland also opt for a non-religious funeral ceremony with no pastor or priest. They prefer the service to be led by a friend. While a small minority of people don’t want any kind of ceremony at all.

The church still plays a major part in most funerals, though many are moving with the times and accommodating people’s wide-ranging preferences.

These include divorcees, people who have turned to other forms of spirituality or those who have married people of other cultures. When someone dies, those close to them may not consider a Catholic or Protestant ceremony to be an appropriate farewell.

As such, churches are renewing their language and the manner of conducting the services, while continuing to draw on Christian history and tradition. 

Modern celebrants are also being used in funeral services, and they call on families and friends to contribute to and create their own funeral ceremonies.

Though cremations do cover the majority of funerals in Switzerland today, some families do still opt for burial and the many picturesque cemeteries, which are often filled with alpine flowers, dotted around the country, are testament to this.

Main photo: Grindelwald-Friedhof. Photo by Diccon Bewes

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