Why gravesites often last only a short time, why Potsdam’s cemeteries benefit from sandy soil – and what there is little need for anymore.
Potsdam – When you walk through the quiet atmosphere of a cemetery and pass by many weathered gravestones, it is not difficult to imagine that the dead have found their eternal resting place here. But this peace is usually not so eternal: More than half of the gravesites in Potsdam exist just 20 to 25 years, then they are cleared and reoccupied. A "right of eternity" exists only for war graves.
According to Potsdam’s cemetery statutes, the prescribed resting period for burials in the ground is 25 years and for urn burials 20 years. The use of the gravesites can be extended as long as the capacity of the respective cemetery allows it; for earth graves this costs 52 euros per year, for an urn grave 37 euros. However, only a part of the relatives uses this possibility: "The desire to extend or not to extend holds the balance – about 50 percent of the survivors extend one or more times the right to use their gravesite," says city spokeswoman Christine Homann when asked by the PNN.
In the case of the other 50 percent, the relatives – if they are still alive – decide against extending the grave. However, many gravesites are also forgotten: Until a few years ago, the city still informed the surviving dependents by letter that the resting period of the respective grave was about to expire – a practice that has since been discontinued, as half of the letters came back with the note "recipient moved". "When moving, unfortunately, it is often not remembered to also inform the cemetery administration of the new address," says Homann. The expiration dates of gravesites are published instead on the Internet, in the official gazette and in the notices of the cemeteries.
Extension only possible for elective graves
However, the option to renew is only available for elective gravesites, where you can choose a specific spot in a grave field. In addition, there are also so-called row graves, for which only a one-time right of use of 20 or 25 years is granted, which cannot be extended. Generally, these are used for single deceased persons, i.e., when no subsequent burial of the partner is expected directly next to the grave.
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In its advice, the cemetery administration points out which rules apply to a row grave: "If a row grave is desired and we recognize that, for example, a living spouse is still present, we ask specifically where his or her burial is to take place later on," says Homann. "In this way, wrong decisions are prevented and complaints as to why the row grave cannot be extended after the end of the resting period are greatly reduced." In 2021, row graves accounted for 15.5 percent of Potsdam’s cemeteries, while the rest were elective graves.
Resting times are also related to the condition of the soil
Resting periods in cemeteries are not uniform, ranging from 15 to 35 years from region to region. This has to do with the nature of the soil: it determines after how many years a corpse is completely decomposed and the grave can be reburied. "Geological-hydrological surveys provide information about existing strata and groundwater conditions on the site in question," Homann says.
In rare cases, however, it happens that corpses do not decompose and become so-called wax corpses: This happens mainly when the soil is too moist and loamy, because the moisture causes the skin fat of the dead to turn into so-called corpse lipid. The body is thus covered by a waxy layer, which may completely prevent decomposition. Fortunately, this is not an issue in Potsdam: "Wax corpses have not been found in past decades, due to the region’s well-ventilated sandy soil," says Homann. In any case, the trend is increasingly toward inexpensive urn burials, which also makes the occurrence of wax corpses less common.
Hardly any demand left for large family graves
Nevertheless, it can happen that after the end of the resting period, some bones are not completely decomposed: "If bone fragments are found when a grave site is reburied, they will be buried pietistically under the future grave base, thus remaining at the burial site," says Homann. When a grave is reburied, the rest of the above-ground equipment, from headstones to plantings, must also be removed.
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Here and there in cemeteries one sees again and again very old and overgrown graves, which obviously have not been maintained for a long time. As a rule, these are large family graves with wrought-iron fences and elaborate headstones. "Due to the urban sprawl, there is little need for such large family graves," Homann says. "However, the cemetery administration tries to preserve the traditional family graves, even if the right of use has expired."
Occasionally, a new user is found: private individuals who do not have to have anything to do with the family can take over the grave sites. "You want to create a long-term burial space for yourself and for your family," Homann says. "Thus, about five family sites are handed over to new users each year, preserving the family sites that are part of the appearance of the cemeteries."
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Anyone interested in the reuse of an old family grave can contact the cemetery administration at the Old Potsdam Cemetery: Before an allocation of use is approved, an inspection of the site in question and a consultation about the possible design of the grave space takes place.