Bern’s Schosshalde cemetery, a hilly expanse of grass, trees, flowering shrubs and pansies shaded by gravestones, is perfect for a quiet spring walk. A place of peace, with intimations of eternal rest.
Wrong! Twenty years. That’s how long these dead get to rest. And then, whoopsie-daisy, their rent runs out and their spot is turned over to someone else.
I was shocked when I learned that most graves in Switzerland are temporary. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In a country that’s seventy percent mountains, there simply isn’t enough suitable land to bury people under, century after century.
The 144-year-old Schosshalde cemetery is a twenty-minute stroll from my house, and because I like both walking and flowers, I spend a lot of time going up and down its paths. Strangely, my explorations have revealed plenty of graves that are more than twenty years old, many of them with names belonging to members of Bern’s most important families. These are the people whose thirteenth-century ancestors were running first the trade guilds and then the city: our burghers, many of whose descendants stayed in power until they were overthrown by Napoleon five hundred years later.
Wanting to understand how the system really works, I make an appointment to meet the director of the cemetery, Simon Zwygart.
While the grounds Herr Zwygart supervises are magnificent, the administrative offices he occupies are modest. Dutifully masked, he and I sit across from each other at a big round table that takes up most of the small room. I ask him how someone buries a family member in Schosshalde.
The first step, he tells me, is to hire an undertaker from a private firm to take charge of the remains and organize the funeral. Then you can decide what you want to pay for a gravesite. The old gravestones at the Schosshalde cemetery belong to the family plots, where a loved one can stay put for forty, rather than twenty, years. These plots are big, they are intended for more than one person, and they’re renewable. They also cost around CHF 260 ($277) a year, so many of Bern’s wealthier families can afford to prolong their ancestors’ graves indefinitely.
Most people, though, choose a twenty-year gravesite. When that time is up, relatives are informed and asked if they would like to have the gravestone. (Most say no, and the slabs are taken to a quarry to be crushed and reused.) After that, one section at a time, groups of twenty-year-old graves disappear, and the stretch of land they once filled is planted with grass until it is needed for new burials.
Notice that the remains are not removed or, if possible, even disturbed—although the contacted family members may have their loved one’s bones or ashes exhumed (and even reburied in a new grave.) Again, most turn this offer down. These days, there are fewer and fewer bones to be found anyway. Herr Zwygart tells me that only eight percent of Schosshalde burials these days involve coffins; most people prefer cremation.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing I learn from the head of the cemetery is that fifty-percent of today’s burials are in large communal graves. These have no personalized markers nor, unless you pay extra, names. Twenty anonymous years in a community grave is the same price as one year in a family grave.
An increasing number of people are rejecting graveyards altogether. They want their families to scatter their ashes rather than bury them in a cemetery. I ask Herr Zwygart what he thinks about this development.
“I personally believe it’s a pity,” he told me. “When people ask to have their ashes scattered, I think they do their family members a disservice. Many of the bereaved need a grave in a cemetery to help them work through their grief. Over years of visiting and tending a gravesite, a person comes to terms with loss, until the time comes for the grave to be aufgehoben.”
Aufgehoben is the official word for what happens to the graves after two decades. It is translated into English as “removed” or “cancelled,” but, literally, it means “lifted up.” I like to think that by the time the gravestone is lifted up, the human remains beneath it have been processed by the earth and uplifted into the cycle of nature.
In another post I’ll write about how the graves in the Schosshalde cemetery are planted with flowers and taken care of. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about Switzerland’s burials, have a look at my friend Clare’s blog. Clare O’Dea is an Irishwoman married to a Swiss and the author of two books about Switzerland: an excellent brand-new novella called Voting Day and The Naked Swiss, which cleverly reexamines clichés about Switzerland. She has written a piece about funerals in the city of Zürich, where residents can be buried for free.