Markets: Personalized and convertible gravestones

Typical graves arranged in rows at a rural cemetery in Germany.Download the article as pdf

(April 2009) Germany has seen a vicissitude in its funerary landscape threatening an entire segment of the stone market in its wake. The ranks of those choosing a traditional burial with casket and gravestone are decimating. Instead, the German population is tending toward cremation and urn-burial. The gravestone then shrinks to negligible proportions, if, indeed, it is not totally redundant, the deceased or his family having chosen an anonymous burial.

Possibly, the renunciation of gravestones will soon extend to other industrialized countries.

Let us name but one figure to support the trend: whereas cremation accounted for 5,3% of burials in 1950, incineration now makes up all of 50% of all interments. In fact there are large differences between rural and urban trends but the general tendency is definitely away from the traditional burial and thus away from the gravestone.

The reasons are manifold, and upon close scrutiny, they reflect many an aspect typical of a wealthy industrialized nation’s lifestyle, like Germany’s.

First there is the yearning for individuality. Instead of standardized gravestones, citizens want the grave marker to mirror the life of the deceased.

Secondly, family ties in Germany have become quite loose. Often children live apart from their parents – career mobility is the buzzword here. This means that caring for a plot would entail considerable travel.

This is where another phenomenon takes hold: the older generation, in turn, does not want a traditional plot in order not to become a burden to their children.

And finally, money plays a part in the equation. A traditional burial costs between 3,000 and 5,000 Euro according to the association of undertakers. This is a proud sum even for the middleclass.

The funerary market is large in Germany with 82 million inhabitants. Gravestones and secondary markets reached a volume of 2,6 billion Euros a year.

This is a segment worth fighting for. Moreover, should efforts to stop or even reverse the downward trend succeed, there might be a chance that the market could grow: until 2050 according to the bureau of statistics, the death rate per year will increase from approximately 850,000 today to 1 million.

All in all, the branch is trying to give cemeteries a new meaning. The graveyard should be „a place not only for the dead but also for the living“ according to one of the masterminds behind plan. That is to say, the grave and the cemetery are there to help those left behind. „Mourning work“ is the technical term from psychoanalysis, and it means that separation from a loved-one is an emotionally draining experience entailing separation, letting go and reorientation.

The branch also expounds on the role of the cemetery as a witness of the zeitgeist and taste of past eras.

Stonemasons who produce gravestones try to accommodate customers in three ways: the offer personalized, and flexible stones, and, wherever possible, even a separation from the cemetery as the only place of mourning. Note that here, too, the buzzwords of modern society individuality, flexibility and mobility have their place.

Individuality in the case of a gravestone means that the mason offers hand-made unique works of art. The artistic component aims to incorporate more than just a name or photo of the deceased on the stone. „Grave marker“ is a new term conceived for such a stone. Examples can be seen on various web pages (in German (1, 2). Considering the unimaginative gravestones normally seen, this is a totally new development.

A quick glance at the neighbours: in Great Britain, personalized gravestones have a long tradition and occasionally take on a form, which Germans, perhaps, cannot condone or even warm up to. Examples can be seen at the yearly awards for the most unusual gravestone: In 2007 the prize went to an obviously thirsty individual.

Flexibility, the second path, is the art of adapting the grave to the various phases of mourning. It might be helpful for a spouse to visit the grave of the deceased partner intensively in the initial phase, later this may no-longer be the case.

This is where the changeable gravestones come in. A gravestone could, e.g., be set on a meadow. If the loved-ones no longer tend to the grave, it simply grown over leaving only the gravestone as a kind of monument or commemorative plate. The grave itself becomes one with the meadow.

Another idea is derived from an orange whose slices fold down revealing the name of the deceased – or concealing it again at will, leaving the view of the whole fruit once again.

Concepts such as these are often used for family plots: each slice of the orange carries the name of an individual, thus allowing the costs to be distributed over several shoulders.

Mobility in its simplest form is achieved by means of pebbles or hand stones (in German) forming the inscription, which the bereaved can take away as a memento. Ancient mores have evolved to new ideas like making the hand stones from the gravestone itself.

Another concept (in German) takes this idea one step further by splitting the gravestone into several pieces. One segment remains in the cemetery, another with the bereaved. Should they later be ready to part from the deceased, the piece can be brought to the cemetery to stand alongside the other piece.

Yet another idea, which embraces anonymous burials instead of damning them, takes the gravestone away from the cemetery altogether. The idea is to provide a fixed environment for the gravestone: the ashes are strewn on the cemetery grounds but the gravestone is set up elsewhere, perhaps nearby the loved-ones. The subject can, and should, help design the stone. This concept (in German) recently took away one first prize at the International Funeral Awards.

All these ideas place the stonemason’s craftsmanship in the foreground of customer services. This is reflected in the high-end price. No one knows how big the market truly is at this point.

Is the German market closed for cheaper products then? Surely not, particularly if suppliers succeed in adapting to the trends.

Nuremberg’s main cemetery on the grounds of the Südfriedhof (see addresses) may offer impetus for new ideas. Since 1981 new gravestone concepts are exhibited there with a two-fold aim: moving away from the standard products yet showing pieces, which can be mass-production.


Hall 4a houses a special exhibit at this year’s Stone+tec in Nuremberg: „The Future of the Gravetone Industry“. Here, new ideas for gravestone design are presented.

Since 1981 a special section of Nuremberg’s Südfriedhof has been showing innovative concepts for grave design. „Leitfriedhof“ (in German) is its name. Walk just a few steps from the last stop of Tram No 8, but be careful, the previous stop is named „Südfriedhof“ – anyone getting off there has a long walk to the special exhibit.

Innovative concepts are also the theme of gravestone futureworks (in German) as well as the grave-portal (in German).

Kassel, a mere two hours by train from Nuremberg or Frankfurt/Main, is the home of the sepulcral museum (in German) showing the history of funerals and burial in Germany.

The FIAT-IFTA is the undertaker’s world trade organization. In the organization’s regular publication Thanos, readers will find descriptions of regional funeral rites as well as a country-by-country analysis of differences and similarities.

International Funeral Awards

Monument Builders of North America

USA: Association for Gravestone Studies

Gravestones in Japan

Ideas for columbarium from France