Why Catholic bishops in Europe are concerned about the rise of ‘nature burials’

Cemetery by old church of St George in Reichenau Island, Germany. iStock photoCemetery by old church of St George in Reichenau Island, Germany. iStock photo

Burial practices among Catholics are rapidly changing in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, prompting church leaders in those countries to formally address the issue.

Many people in German-speaking lands are rejecting traditional Christian liturgies in favor of burial practices mirroring ancient Germanic customs. These include cremation and “nature burials,” in which remains are buried in unmarked graves in woods, meadows, unincorporated areas or scattered as ashes in rivers. In some cases, urns are enshrined in homes or private gardens.

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According to the German Bishops Conference, “Aside from coffin interments as a traditional form of burial, there are more and more cremations; anonymous burials and burials of urns in water or forests are no longer rarities.” There were an estimated 243,705 Catholic funerals in Germany in 2018. However, the church’s role in funeral rites has diminished, according to the bishops. “The role of the church, the faith community and local authorities has declined over time. Professional funeral speakers and privately owned funeral enterprises have in some measure taken their place.”

In November 2018, the Austrian Bishops Conference published a document outlining acceptable modern burial customs titled “Fire and Nature Burials: Contemporary Pastoral Practices.” According to the bishops, a proper burial place must be “permanent and accessible to everyone,” allow for “preservation of the memory of the dead, including a person’s name, biography, dignity and individuality” and allow for a Christian symbol such as a cross or work of art to be present to invoke the hope of resurrection. The bishops recommended that graves be blessed and arranged so that visitors can pray and leave remembrance tokens such as flowers.

The bishops strongly decried anonymous funerals, burials in remote and inaccessible nature areas, and practices in which the identity of a deceased person is erased or their human dignity is compromised.

“These options are in no way Christian: to anonymously scatter ashes in nature, air or water; to install an urn in a private home or apartment; to bury remains in a private garden; or to divide ashes into multiple ‘remembrance objects,’” the bishops wrote, also criticizing the trend to convert loved ones’ ashes into jewelry.

The bishops strongly decried anonymous funerals, burials in remote and inaccessible nature areas, and practices in which the identity of a deceased person is erased or their human dignity is compromised.

In a 2016 study on changing burial customs, the German diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart noted cases of urns being “buried” in trees. According to this practice, families can lease a forest tree for 99 years and can use trees in lieu of family plots—a “funeral tree” can be fitted to accommodate 10 urns. In other cases, the human ashes are used as soil to fertilize the tree’s roots; proponents of this practice argue that the tree continues the life of the deceased in this manner. Though it objected to the practice, the diocese acknowledged that, according to German law in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, anonymous forest burials are also permitted. That is, it is legal to bury human remains in unincorporated areas, so long as the burial site has visible border markings.

In some privately owned forest cemeteries, markers such as gravestones, wreaths and candles are not permitted, and mourners are not allowed to leave behind mementos. Instead, the “grave trees” are merely marked with colored bands and tiny name plaques. The business owners market the idea of anonymity as part of a forest aesthetic. But Catholic officials in Germany argue that these practices—now widespread—reduce the deceased to a state of nonexistence.

“Fundamental concerns remain about these burial practices,” wrote the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. “They encourage private religion, nature religion, or pantheistic concepts and banish the deceased person even more from the everyday life of the living in often far-remote forests.”

The cooperation of Catholic clergy or laity with such practices is impossible, the diocese wrote. The diocese added that “tree burials” in cemeteries, in which urns are placed on shelf-like structures in the trees, “resonate with nature religion” but can be acceptable in cases where Christian burial rites are observed. Regulations published by the German Bishops Conference prohibit anonymous burials.

Geography plays a role in nature burials. In German-speaking regions filled with rivers and lakes, water burials are popular. In some instances, urns are ceremonially ferried on a boat for several days, often surrounded by candles in a practice resembling ancient Viking funeral rituals, before the ashes are released into open water.

Special funerary cruises on the Rhine and other rivers are often used for this purpose. Mourners intend to honor a loved one’s connection to a particular natural element, landmark or place. The Rhine—nicknamed “Father Rhine” by locals in Rhineland regions—and other bodies of water hold cultural significance for many people.

The Swiss-German canton of Basel announced in September an official sanction of “Rhine burials”—permitting citizens to scatter ashes freely in the Rhine. The legalization comes after several batches of urns were discovered at the bottom of Lake Zürich; 67 urns were recovered from the lake by police divers in 2010, while another group of 13 urns was found in 2018.

Catholic Church officials in German-speaking regions express concern that these modern trends compromise human dignity. However, as more people abandon traditional Christian funeral practices, the church is adapting its approach.

The Austrian bishops allow the possibility of Christian funerals in “meadow cemeteries,” which some municipalities have established in wooded areas. “Alternative burial places for urns in meadow and forest areas, or in park-like grounds, are parallel to cemeteries,” the bishops wrote. “These concepts do not include a religious presence or pastoral engagement a priori, but on a case-by-case basis at individual burials.”

The bishops stressed that all baptized Catholics are entitled to a Catholic funeral service regardless of whether their relatives have Christian beliefs. “The right of a Catholic to the celebration of a funeral liturgy does not cease even if surviving relatives have no regard for church norms when choosing a burial form or place,” they wrote.

In a February interview aired by the Diocese of Cologne’s news radio station, Domradio.de, Pastor Jürgen Quandt, director of a Berlin cemetery association, said traditional funerals are diminishing in Germany to such a degree that Christian cemeteries are experiencing financial crises. “Coffin burials are becoming the rare exception,” he said. “Here in Berlin only 15 to 17 percent of all burials are in coffins. The rest are all urn burials—and more than half of these are not buried in individual graves, but in communal vaults.” According to Pastor Quandt, cemeteries are full of unused plots and struggle to reduce excess empty land. In Berlin, some former cemetery sites have been converted into parks.

As the debate surrounding funeral rites continues, other time-honored Christian traditions are changing in German-speaking lands—notably, baptisms. Many Christians in Germany are forsaking baptismal fonts in favor of rites at lakes, woods and rivers.

One new practice gaining popularity is the Rheintaufe, or “Rhine baptism,” in which pastors baptize children and adults knee-deep in the Rhine. Participants praise the Rhine baptism for its rugged appeal and German cultural significance.

The practice of river baptisms began at Protestant churches in recent years and is attracting Catholics, according to news reports. While the Catholic Church is becoming increasingly forced to apply Christian rules to nature burials, there is no sign that the church will condone nature baptisms. If the religious culture in German-speaking regions continues to evolve, however, the possibility of further interactions between Catholicism and nature spirituality could be on the horizon.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nora Bolcon
2 weeks 5 days ago

Interesting article. I know there are many couples who want to be married on the beach, on an island, and this presents problems for Catholics too. My husband, a born, raised and practicing Catholic believes nature is God's greatest cathedral. He always feels most close to God in the woods when we go camping in the mountains.

Sometimes I do think our church needs to let go control and I do believe sacraments and important religious events can be performed in spaces of nature. I agree the liturgy and rules have to be made to fit that environment respectfully but I don't see fighting over where we worship, in or out of a church building, to be something Jesus would want to see us in strife over in his church.

J. Calpezzo
2 weeks 5 days ago

Nicely said Nora. Your husband mirrors the views of St Francis on this his feast day.

Bru Romn
2 weeks 5 days ago

Interesting reply. In the USA, my daughter went over to Evangelical, i’m Happy she is at least ‘religious. But I just can’t adapt to their ‘musical’ mass. Just didn’t see Jesus celebrating all the time with drums and flutes in his day. So that said, I really appreciate a Mass with the beauty of the church, solemnly conducted. Go be in the woods anytime, but ‘Sunday’ is the Lords day and that 1 hour is in the Church. ( my opinion, thanks)

Phil Lawless
2 weeks 4 days ago

That happens to be what my parents adjusted to my conversion to Catholicism. Religions are what draw people to God. They emphasize elements that appeal to them. That does not mean they contain the whole truth of God. It just means they contain a lot of the truth of God.. look for the truth they continue, and still present the truth you recognize. Cultural styles do not represent all the truths, but they do many.. Sometimes exuberance is worthwhile. Maybe not at all times, because serious sorrows do afflict us. Consider accommodating her practice while offering yours in support when she may need it.

J. Calpezzo
2 weeks 5 days ago

Say what? The great minds of Germany are twiddling while good Catholics bolt their uptight, doctrine-obsessed church. How many of these deep thinkers spoke out about Benedict’s cover-up of The Crime of the Millenia?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN
2 weeks 5 days ago

As Sagan said, we are all stardust ( with reference to nature burials).

karen oconnell
2 weeks 5 days ago

my intentions are to be cremated...and have the ashes divided. 1/2 will be buried with my parents'; the other half will be sprinkled in the Seine ...in front of Notre Dame Paris. all costs provided for in my will. (these guys are really overstepping themselves; as they say, we come from the earth, and we return to the earth. being able to do this gives the career cleric pause, but--- gives me great joy!!!!!

Phil Lawless
2 weeks 4 days ago

I agree with division of ashes. I would like to honor my ancestors by being near to them in Calvary cemetary in Wisconsin, and also be close to my parents in Calvary cemetary in Asheville. These are my remains, definitely me, my ashes and dust.? I should be able to decide where they should be placed. It is not a statement of faith. I have lived all my life with faith about my eternal life, perhaps more so than most. I think,it appropriate to express my faith by saying where my ashes should be divide d in rest.

John Barbieri
2 weeks 5 days ago

Doesn't G_D know us in life and death?
Why would He care about locales?
The article mentions the decrease in church funerals and baptisms. After so much of what we have learned about the clergy and hierarchy, is it just possible that the church is worried about loss of income? (Sigh).follow the money.

karen oconnell
2 weeks 5 days ago

they just want to control. avoid them like the plague.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 5 days ago

Someone is going to lose a source of income! Oh, the horror. When I was a parish sacristan 15 years ago, the organist was paid $200 per hour and the soloist was paid $300 to warble a few songs. One particular funeral Mass went a bit long. At 1 hour and 2 minutes a call game down from the choir loft demanding relief as they weren't being paid....So much for the sanctity and compassion of the funeral Mass. It really is ALL about the money. Well, working behind the scenes there are many good Priests and yet many see it as a source of cheap income.

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