Muslim cemeteries ‘long-term investments’

Switzerland’s tendency to allow cantons or towns to decide certain issues sometimes makes for piece-meal solutions, and such is the case with special sections of cemeteries for different religions.  The oldest “Muslim” cemetery was established in 1978 in Geneva’s Petit- Saconnex, after local Muslims came to an agreement with local officials.  Though not without controversy, many cities have since found solutions to allow special burials, with Lucerne being one of the last major cities to do so.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports that the Muslim cemetery there has been only moderately used so far, but that might not be a problem.

Cornel Suter stands on a gravel pathway near a plot of land covered in purple, white and yellow wildflowers, wooden and stone headstones line one side.  Suter is the head of Lucerne’s city cemetery, and he says since this Muslim section was installed in 2008 just 10 people have been buried here—7 adults and 3 children.

He says this number is as expected, or maybe they expected a few more.  But the low number is explainable, and will surely increase in the future.

Suter says the issue of having a special section of the cemetery for Muslims is no longer as controversial as it had been in 2008 or 2009.  But that didn’t stop the local paper the Luzerner Zeitung, from pointing out the number of burials was far short of the anticipated 11 to 16 per year.  “Instead of that there are the forementioned 10” the paper wrote. “Meaning at least for the moment each grave cost 20-thousand francs.”  The cost to create the section was 200-thousand francs.

ANDREAS TUNGER: “Having few graves after two years of existence of such a graveyard is a bit [of] a short-sided view at the whole question.  The number will rise.”

Andreas Tunger is a researcher at the University of Lucerne’s Center for the Study of Religions.

TUNGER:  “We can observe a similar picture in many of these Muslim cemeteries in Switzerland.  There have been areas within public cemeteries, where the direction of the graves is so that Muslim rites can be performed properly, and there are few Muslims to be buried there until now.”

Tunger says some Muslims who are immigrants choose to be buried in the countries of origin, meaning it will take a few years before residents with firmer roots in Switzerland choose to be buried in these special sections.  From Geneva, to Bern, to Basel, and perhaps soon to be St. Gallen, communities are negotiating with local religious groups to find space or arrangements to fill cemetery needs.  Tunger says some smaller villages have agreed to share special burial space for certain religious groups.

TUNGER: “At one point, earlier or later, you have to tackle this question, because the Muslims are there.  They have the constitutional right for a decent burial.  What experience shows is that more than a dozen municipalities in Switzerland have found a solution by a process in which local authorities and local Muslims sit at a table and  discuss what possibilities do we have, what solutions do we have.  Almost everywhere a solution has been found.”

Muslim graves

Cornel Suter at Lucerne’s cemetery says working with the local Muslim association has been helpful for a number of reasons—pointing out religious requirements, helping with language, or even mediating cultural differences.  He is thankful for that.

Researcher Andreas Tunger sees this example as paramount:

TUNGER: “What we have seen until now is very much goodwill on this very grassroots level, which the populist tendencies cannot so easily exploit for national campaigns.”

And Tunger says these dialogues also signal to different groups that long-term investments are being made to show the groups are part of society.  And he says that should not be underestimated.

 **This story won second place in the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association contest

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