Diversity in death

Before it was updated Luxembourg’s legislation on death dated from Napoleonic times Shutterstock

Before it was updated Luxembourg’s legislation on death dated from Napoleonic times Shutterstock

Death may be “the great leveller”, as the proverb runs, but when you cannot fulfil a person’s last wishes because of cultural or administrative challenges, it can also exacerbate differences.

“It's a big topic and it's a heavy topic, and it's a difficult topic. But still it's part of life, and we all die,” postdoc researcher Dr Mariske Westendorp tells me from a striking stand at the migration festival--striking because its walls are covered with questions like “when do you go to a cemetery?" The Dutch academic is gathering information on the experiences of migrants and minorities around death to understand their specific needs as part of an international project.

“It’s something that is very typical for each region and religion,” principal investigator for the Luxembourg case study Dr Sonja Kmec explains. “People tend to assume that’s the way to do it. But when they move somewhere else and it’s done differently, sometimes they’re a bit taken aback, especially if they are in a situation where they are mourning or vulnerable.”

Westendorp adds: “It's very important, for mourning and for bereavement, if you can say goodbye to your loved ones in the way that suits you, but it's not always [possible]”.

From left Dr Sonja Kmec and Dr Mariske Westendorp are pictured at the migration festival on 29 February 2020. Photo: JB

This could be because Luxembourg has very specific rules around death. For instance, by law, a body should be either buried or cremated within 72 hours of certificate of death being issued. Often for international residents, by the time family and friends abroad have been contacted and a ceremony organised, there is no body present because it has already been buried or cremated. “For some people, this is an odd practice. These are things that people notice only at the point when they are confronted with it,” says Westendorp. “And so, one of the aims of the project is to talk with people that are not vulnerable at the moment to discuss this and say what is it actually that you'd like and that you need?”

In addition to the legal constraints, the pair are keen to probe perceptions on diversity in cemeteries and crematoria. They want to know, for instance, how welcoming Luxembourg’s cemeteries feel for people from different faiths, how farewell rooms in cemeteries can be more inclusive of diversity and how people envisage their own funerals.

These are clearly not easy questions to ask a complete stranger and so to facilitate dialogue the pair are organising a number of events. Among them is a creative workshop with an artist to help people design their own tombstones.

Death in Luxembourg

In Luxembourg, around 4,000 people die annually according to figures published on Statec. With a multicultural demographic of over 200 different nationalities, it is common for remains to be repatriated to a country of origin, when possible and affordable. Westendorp explains that there is even a company managing muslim remains repatriations within Europe, for example. But, there wasn’t always so much choice.

A grave in a traditional cemetery is “not forever” as people only lease a plot. Photo: Shutterstock

Before it was updated Luxembourg’s legislation on death dated from Napoleonic times. A reform in 1972 paved the way for the construction of the country’s first and only crematorium, which opened in Hamm in 1995. Incineration, says University of Luxembourg research associate Thomas Kolnberger, is today the first choice in 60% of cases.

At the same time, the use of forest cemeteries or “Bëschkierfechter” to scatter ashes has also grown in popularity. Although burial remains a common practice, here too things are changing. Kolnberger said he expects to see a surge in green burials, without tombstones.

Even the traditional cemetery changes over time as Kmec points out that here a grave is “not forever”. “Because in fact you only lease a plot for 15 or 30 years and then what happens to the body after you disappear?” She cites the example of the commune of Steinsel, which is building a modern ossuary that would ensure a respectful place of rest for human skeletal remains.

The cemeteries and crematoria as public spaces of belonging project began in July 2019 and runs for two years. The early findings will be shared through a photo exhibition in November. At the end the pair will use the material to write a policy brief to make communes and cemetery managers aware of the public’s changing needs. Focusing mainly on spaces in the capital, the two academics plan more public focus groups in future, including a talk on 25 March at Neumunster Abbey (in German and English).

People can also book a private appointment to share their experiences and needs in Luxembourg by emailing [email protected] or visiting the Facebook page.