Germany, similar in size to the state of Montana, has approximately 83 million people, so open space is at a premium. At cemeteries, it is customary that you don’t buy a burial plot and it’s yours for eternity - you purchase in essence a land lease for 30 or 50 years, reverting back to the cemetery after that.
In North Rhine-Westphalia for the funeral of a family member in 2018, I encountered an alternative building use I had never seen before: the conversion of a church into a Grabeskirche (burial church) for urns.
The church in question, St. Josef in the small town of Viersen, located on the lower Rhine near the Dutch border, was designed by architect Josef Kleesattel and, in neo-gothical style, is typical for church buildings in this part of Germany. It was dedicated in 1891 and partially converted to a Columbarium in 2012, aided by the fact that the catholic church allows cremation of its members again since 1963, something it had forbidden since 765.
The space adaptation of the building is convincing and harmonious: about 2/3 of the nave has been converted into a Columbarium with walls for urns. The altar has been left intact, and there is enough space to hold funeral services in the sanctuary, as well as community events and frequent concerts. All pathways are ADA- (equiv.) compliant, and besides a priest there is a competent team on site to aide relatives in planning and execution of funeral ceremonies.
The current configuration offers 1,638 niches for urns, of which over 800 were sold when I spoke with a church team member during my visit. A two-year remodeling plan, designed by architect Ulrich Hahn of Hahn Helten architects https://www.hahn-helten.de in Aachen, will create another 1,000 spaces.
Astonishing for anyone who has encountered catholic conservatism: the burial plots are available to deceased of any religion or if the person had even formally left the church. Bravo!
Please leave your comments and questions below – I’m very curious to hear your opinion.
Krypta photo ©Uwe Rieder, all other photos ©tckaiser
Tobias Kaiser is an independent real estate consultant and licensed Realtor in Florida since 1990. He specializes in modern architecture and net leased investments.