When is someone described as dead?

We describe a person as “dead” when they have suffered a complete and irreversible loss of function in the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem – “brain death”, in other words. Their coronary and circulatory functions are able to continue only with the help of controlled ventilation.

This definition of death is a medical, technical definition and the legal definition that applies in Germany. However, it does not explore the spiritual, religious or philosophical aspects.

What is a dead body or corpse?

The terms “dead body” or “corpse” refer to the physical remains of a deceased person in which the tissues remain intact and have not yet begun to decompose. Dead bodies also include deceased newborns, irrespective of body weight, provided they have shown at least one identifiable sign of life: heartbeat, pulsation in the umbilical cord or breathing.

Why does a death have to be medically confirmed?

Confirmation of death primarily meets a general social and personal need for certainty that death has actually occurred. The information is mainly used for death statistics, epidemiology and as a basis for health care.

What are the certain signs of death?

The first, most certain sign of death is discoloration of the skin, known as “livor mortis”. The certain second sign occurs 3 to 4 hours after death and consists of stiffness of the limbs. This is known as “rigor mortis”. A third sign is a cooler body as the core temperature begins to adjust to ambient temperature levels. Various factors determine how fast these signs of death actually become apparent.

What other signs of death are there?

Other, less certain factors may also indicate death, such as:

  • Unresponsive, dilated pupils
  • Inactivity of the heart
  • Absence of breathing
  • Absence of reflexes (areflexia)
  • A cooling down of the body temperature
What is “apparent death”?

Apparent death occurs when death is wrongly diagnosed. In the early 19th century, fear of apparent death or being buried alive was such that public mortuaries were established and funeral periods were introduced. These remain with us to this day.

What does the “transfer” of a body mean?

No matter where a person dies – be it at home, in hospital or in a care facility – their body must be transferred from the place of death to a place where it will remain until it is interred. Alternatively, the deceased must be taken from the place where they are laid out to the place of their interment. In Germany, dead bodies may only be transported in officially approved vehicles.

What is a medical certificate of cause of death?

If someone dies at home, the doctor examines them and issues a medical certificate of cause of death. This shows the deceased’s name, and the cause and time of their death. In German, the certificate is known as a “Totenschein” and consists of two parts: one open part for the register office (“Standesamt”), and one confidential section for the medical officer (“Amtsarzt”).

If the person dies in a hospital or care home, the medical certificate of cause of death is issued by the doctor who attended to them in the final stages of their life.

You will need a medical certificate of cause of death to obtain a death certificate (“Sterbeurkunde”).

What is a death certificate (“Sterbeurkunde”)?

A death certificate is an official document that you will need to present at various points when taking care of the deceased’s affairs. You can obtain one from the register office responsible for the locality in which the death occurred. It is generally a good idea to have several copies issued, as you will need them on more than one occasion. To apply for a death certificate, you will need a number of other documents as well.

Are there any alternatives to having the deceased interred?

In the Federal Republic of Germany, it is a legal requirement to inter the deceased. This law, known in German as “Bestattungszwang”, is also reflected the laws and regulations of the individual federal states. In practical terms, this means that all deceased human beings, including newborns weighing 500g or more, must be buried, either as full bodies or as cremated remains.


Do the dead have to be interred in cemeteries?

In Germany, the dead must be interred in public (council or church) cemeteries or in an approved private cemetery. The legal requirement for cemetery burials (“Friedhofszwang”) is closely related to the “Bestattungszwang” interment law outlined above but not identical to it.

In Germany, there are the concepts of “Bestattungspflicht” and “Totenfürsorge”. What do they mean?

“Bestattungspflicht” and “Totenfürsorge” both refer to the legal obligation to take care of the deceased from the moment of death until their interment. The individuals responsible according to German law may or may not be the people who arrange the and pay for the funeral.

What is a funeral plan?

If you would like to save your loved ones the trouble and distress of organising your funeral, you can make the necessary arrangements yourself in advance. Start by telling your funeral director what kind of funeral you would like, what you want included and what your personal wishes are. You should also organise financing, for instance by taking out funeral insurance.

Making your arrangements in good time can take the financial and emotional burden off your family.

For more about funeral plans, click >>here

What types of funeral are there?

Burials: Burials are the most common type of funeral in Germany. The coffin containing the body is interred in a burial place, usually straight after the funeral service. The coffin is lowered into the grave, which is then closed.

Cremations: The term “cremation” refers to the incineration of the deceased in their coffin and the subsequent burial of their cremated remains in an urn. Essentially, burials and cremations are considered equal, but a cremation requires special approval for reason of criminal justice.

Burials at sea: Burials at sea involve placing the cremated remains of the deceased into a special (soluble) urn so that they can be disposed of at sea. A burial at sea requires a death certificate and a written declaration of intent, either by the next of kin or by the deceased themselves.

Anonymous burial: Anonymous burials consist of interring the deceased’s ashes in an unspecified, unmarked area of grass. In some German states, ashes can also be scattered. Some towns and municipalities also provide for anonymous body burials.

Anonymous burials mean that there is no special place for loved ones to visit, as there is no specific grave. For most people an anonymous grave is a way of not burdening relatives with a grave to care for – although not many people like the idea of being truly anonymous, or even forgotten, after their demise. If grave maintenance is a key consideration to you, a lawn grave may be a viable alternative. This will be marked with the name of the deceased, giving family members a maintenance-free place to visit, but cared for by the cemetery administration.

Space burials: These are a special type of cremation. A small amount of the deceased’s ashes (approx. 7 grams) is placed into a lipstick-sized urn and sent into space. It orbits the Earth for several years before burning up as it re-enters the atmosphere. The remainder of the ashes are buried in the ground. Space burials are available from specialist providers.

What are the stages of grief?

Scientists have identified four stages of grief that accompany every bereavement:

  1. Denying grief
  2. Allowing grief
  3. Confronting grief
  4. Accepting grief

Our ways of grieving are as diverse as our ways of living, so the individual stages can last for different lengths of time or be more or less severe.

What is a crematorium?

A crematorium is a public or an approved private facility in which bodies are disposed of by burning. Bodies are incinerated in cutting-edge furnaces while still in their coffins. To minimise smoke and harmful emissions, temperatures are kept at between approx. 600 and 800°C, although they can rise to approx. 1370°C.

How is a body cremated?

Bodies are incinerated in their coffins. They enter the furnace via a conveyor system and ignite in the hot air – a relatively energy-efficient method. To ensure that the remains will be those of the specified person, coffins are cremated one at a time. They enter the combustion chamber accompanied by a small, incombustible marker bearing a number and the name of the crematorium. Numbered consecutively, these markers allow the cremated remains to be identified and registered with the name of the deceased. They are also placed in the ashes capsule along with the ashes for identification purposes.

Can people be mummified or embalmed?

In Germany, it is not legal to mummify deceased individuals “Ancient-Egyptian style”. As a qualified undertaker and embalmer, Wilhelm Knopf is an expert in modern-day preservation techniques and able to slow down or stave off decomposition temporarily to allow open-casket viewings and keep the body intact until it is interred.

What happens when a body decomposes?

Decay (heterolysis) is the process by which biological tissues are broken down by bacteria. This causes gases to accumulate, which can inflate the abdomen, cause puffiness in the face, etc. A second process of decomposition consists of a dry process based on oxidisation. In addition, mould sets in. These processes of decomposition depend on their surroundings and can take place either simultaneously or in succession.

What wishes can I put into my will?

Your will allows you to specify who should receive what from your estate. It allows you to:

  • Choose your heirs as you wish (including charities and churches), irrespective of legal definitions
  • Disinherit people
  • Nominate substitute heirs, for instance in case a nominated heir dies
  • Determine limited or consecutive heirs who will inherit your estate in succession

For more about inheritance law, click here.

What is a holographic or handwritten will (“eigenhändiges Testament”)?

A holographic or handwritten will is a will that has been written and signed by hand and includes the full name (first and surname) of the signatory. We strongly recommend that you write the time and place of the signature on the document as well.

For more about inheritance law, click here.

What is a notarial will (“öffentliches Testament”)?

If you want to be absolutely certain that there are no mistakes in your will, you should use a notary to set up a notarial will. This can be done in one of two ways:

  • Explain your will to a notary
  • Write the will yourself and hand it over to a public notary for safe keeping, to be retrieved and opened only after your demise. The charge for this service depends on the value of the estate to be bequeathed.

For more about inheritance law, click here.

What is a joint will (“gemeinschaftliches Testament”)?

Spouses/civil partners can write a will together. One partner notes down the last will on behalf of both partners; both partners then sign the document with their full names, adding the date and place of the signature.

For more about inheritance law, click here.

Can I revoke my will?

You can revoke your will at any time. All you need to do is destroy the document or write the word “invalid” (“ungültig”) on it in handwriting. The most recent version of a will always replaces older versions. A public or notarial will can be rendered invalid by being removed from its official place of safekeeping and returned to its owner. A joint will must be revoked in person by at least one of the partners. The revocation must be certified by a notary.

For more about inheritance law, click here.

What is a living will (“Patientenverfügung”)?

A living will (“Patientenverfügung”, “Patiententestament”) allows you to set out your treatment requirements, should you ever become incapacitated and unable to express your wishes. For instance, a coma patient who has set out their wishes in a living will must be treated entirely in accordance with those wishes. Medical professionals are under an obligation to follow instructions set out in the living will and must not contravene them.

What’s a council funeral (“Sozialbestattung”)?

Cryonics is a high-tech method with tremendous potential for the future. It consists of using ultra-low temperatures to halt all life – including decomposition. Processes are said to stop at minus 196 degrees.

Supporters of this technology, known as “cryonicists” hope that it will allow them to be revived at a later date, when sufficient medical advances have been made.

Related areas of research are also seeking answers to various questions. Cryobiology, for instance, explores the effects of the cold on living organisms.

What does “cryonics” mean?

Cryonics is a high-tech method with tremendous potential for the future. It consists of using ultra-low temperatures to halt all life – including decomposition. Processes are said to stop at minus 196 degrees.

Supporters of this technology, known as “cryonicists” hope that it will allow them to be revived at a later date, when sufficient medical advances have been made.

Related areas of research are also seeking answers to various questions. Cryobiology, for instance, explores the effects of the cold on living organisms.

What is “thanatopraxy” or “embalming”?

Thanatopraxy is defined as the preservation of deceased individuals. It is derived from the ancient Greek words “Thanatos” meaning “death”, and “Praxis” meaning “craft”. So thanatopraxy refers in the broadest sense to the carrying out of a craft on the dead. It includes aspects of hygiene, and plastic and cosmetic reconstruction following an accident, as well as contemporary techniques of replacing body fluids with embalming fluids, for instance. If the body is to be transferred to another country, embalming may be mandatory. However, it may also be a solution of choice if the funeral is to take place after a longer period, as it staves off the process of decomposition for a period of time.

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