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German Funerary Customs and Practices
When a person dies today, several steps are immediately taken:
A physician/hospital has to confirm the death and fills in a form. The death has to be reported to the Civil Registration office. Funeral arrangements have to be made. Some pertinent questions have to be answered.
How is the deceased to be buried:
in a coffin and in a grave? Is the body to be cremated, put in an urn and rest in a wall? Will the grave be anonymous? How long is the deceased to occupy a grave? Traditionally people were buried in church yards and their graves would remain there forever, provided it was looked after. The time came when the church could or would no longer maintain all graves. The local administration then provided plots outside the city/village boundaries. The graves there would be rented for a certain time (15 to 30 years).
In the past, the dead were buried by different rules. Before mortuaries and undertakers, neighbors and friends helped out. The body was washed, dressed and laid out in the parlor. People mourned their dead by wearing black. According to some practices a widow had to wear black 1-5 years (some wore it for the rest of their life). Parents and in-laws were required to wear black for 1 year, so were children. Grandchildren wore black for 6 months. Germans differentiate between “tiefe Trauer” and “stille Trauer” showing by outward signs how the death of a loved one affects them and what importance they thought they must place on the burial ritual. Most people could afford to only bury their dead without elaborate ceremonies and have the death registered in the local church book. Many of these entries consist of one line, giving very scanty information.
A funeral could be performed according to “Klasse I” (first rate) down to “Klasse 5”. The difference: First rate funerals had a hearse drawn by 4 horses with black drapes. The two front horses were lead by 2 men clad in black. 12 men accompanied the coffin. They wore black coats and a three pointed hat with gauze. 10 assistants went along to fill the grave. A black blanket was draped around the coffin with silver ornamentation. A funeral of bare minimum consisted of 2 horses draped in black, 8 men accompanying the coffin. They wore round hats and another 8 assistants went along to fill the grave. The cost was 17 Marks compared to 180 Marks for a first class funeral.
From the middle of the 16th century on funeral sermons became very popular. They spread with the Reformation and were around for 200 years. Leichenpredigten, as they were known in German lavished generous tribute on the deceased. What initially was reserved for the prominent deceased male became customary for burials of females and ordinary people as well.
What information does one find in Leichenpredigten? They come in several parts:
the sermon held at the grave side, the curriculum vitae and genealogy, the tributes in form of poems or dicta and music.
Leichenpredigten were printed privately and depending on social and economic status of the deceased richly ornamented and distributed. The genealogical value of a Leichenpredigt is sometimes questionable. The content and accuracy can vary. Therefore, it is advisable to not rely entirely on the information, but compare it with other sources. Leichenpredigten can be found in libraries, archives and universities. To browse online for them, check out www.familysearch.org , Family History Library, Key word search: Leichenpredigten or go to http://web.uni-marburg.de/fpmr//html/db/gesa_xs.html
Burial records are kept with the local cemetery administration. They are usually under the jurisdiction of the city and can be found under category “Bürgerservice” (service to citizens), “Friedhof” (cemetery), “Grünflächen” (open space) etc. The records contain death and burial date of the deceased, age, relationship to father/ husband/ wife and the number of the burial plot in whatever cemetery.