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Funerals, burials and wills: What you should know about dying in Switzerland

Planning for death is never easy, but living abroad can make things more complicated. From funerals to burials and inheritance, here's what you need to know about dying in Switzerland.

Funeral planning can be difficult in Switzerland. Photo by Mayron Oliveira on Unsplash
Funeral planning can be difficult in Switzerland. Photo by Mayron Oliveira on Unsplash

Switzerland has long been a haven for foreigners seeking a quiet life. For some, including iconic names like Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn, Swiss soil became their final resting place. 

The timing of the end of life, like the beginning of life, is almost impossible to predict – we know not the day nor the hour – but what if death crosses your path in Switzerland? How can you prepare and what can you expect as next of kin? 

Some 7,000 foreign residents die in Switzerland every year.

For the bereaved, there is an administrative and practical side to the experience as well as the emotional side. It’s a difficult situation where many important decisions have to be taken in a short space of time. 

First steps

Official procedures related to death fall within the authority of the commune where the death occurs. The death of a loved one must be declared within two days to the local Registry Office (Zivilstandsamt / Office de l’état civil / Ufficio di stato civile).

If the death occurs in a hospital or other medical facility, you don’t have to worry, the management is responsible for completing the declaration formalities, which includes a death certificate prepared by a doctor. An accidental death must be reported to the police. 

READ MORE: 7 things you need to know about Swiss inheritance law

If the death occurs at home, a doctor has to attend, acknowledge the death and prepare the death certificate for the Registry Office. The task of declaring the death can be delegated in writing to a firm of undertakers. Apart from handling the formalities, the undertakers will guide the bereaved in organising the funeral. 

Other documents needed to register a death include birth and marriage certificates, identity papers and residence permit, if applicable. 

Funeral arrangements

Many cities, including Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Winterthur, St. Gallen and Lausanne, offer a free basic funeral package to deceased residents, including a burial plot. 

Zurich has its own municipal undertakers while some cities designate one provider. Bern, Fribourg and Lausanne have a number of undertakers in competition with each other. In Bern, only people who die with no means benefit from a free ‘community funeral’.  

It is possible to plan your own funeral in advance by engaging funeral directors and paying up front. But very few people are this well organised. 

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It can be very helpful to have an idea of your loved one’s wishes when it comes to the basic question – cremation versus burial.

Cremation is the norm in Switzerland, a cultural change that has happened over the last 50 years. These days, around 85 per cent of people who die are cremated. 

The general trend in Switzerland is for less extravagant funerals, though undertakers will be happy to fulfil every wish. A basic coffin will cost around CHF 800 but costs quickly add up when you include the treatment of the body, upholstery, transport, flowers, type of grave or niche, gravestone, admin time, as well as the ceremony and reception afterwards. 

Eternal rest? 

With a coffin burial you have to choose a type of grave, whether you take the next grave in line in the public graveyard, which is the basic, usually cost-free option, or you reserve a grave for an annual fee in a particular place which can later be used by other family members. 

Bear in mind that the ‘line grave’ is not a permanent arrangement. There is a time limit on how long these rows are left untouched – 20 to 25 years, depending on the cemetery – after which the graves will be cleared to make room for newcomers. 

With cremated remains, you have the option of burial, keeping or scattering. In a graveyard, you can bury the ashes in a communal memorial garden without anything marking the spot, or bury it in a grave.

Most cemeteries now have a columbarium, usually a wall, with niches for urns with a named plaque, at a cost. 

At least scattering ashes is free and can be done anywhere, except on someone else’s private land. It can be comforting to scatter the ashes in the person’s home country or in a beautiful place they loved. 

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Difficult decisions

It is possible to travel with cremated remains but not without paperwork. According to advice from the United States embassy, you need to have a certified copy of the death certificate, the cremation certificate, and “a statement from the crematorium or the funeral home confirming that the urn contains only the ashes of the deceased”. 

There are companies that specialise in the repatriation of remains from Switzerland. Your undertaker or the funeral service of the commune will be able to advise on this expensive possibility. 

Because bereaved families nowadays are generally more distanced from religion than previous generations, there is less certainty in Switzerland on what customs to follow. Even Swiss families can feel lost and helpless trying to organise a funeral.

But everyone tries to do what’s right for them. That might mean following traditional customs or opting for a secular celebrant, commissioning a custom-made urn or using an eco-friendly coffin. Your doctor or hospital can help connect you to a bereavement support group if needed.  

Finally, a topic that’s impossible to ignore when discussing death in Switzerland – assisted suicide, which accounts for almost two in a hundred deaths.

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

For permanent Swiss residents, the largest assisted suicide organisation is Exit, followed by Dignitas, which also caters for non-residents.

By Clare O’Dea

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For members


Can a Swiss landlord charge a fee if you renounce to rent an apartment?

Say you signed a registration for a flat in Switzerland, but then changed your mind. What, if any, fees are you liable for if you decide to withdraw your application?

Can a Swiss landlord charge a fee if you renounce to rent an apartment?

In some areas of Switzerland, good and reasonably priced rental properties are difficult to come by, so once you find one, you hold on to it for dear life.

But it can also happen that you change your mind for whatever reason and no longer want to proceed with the rental.

What happens then?

Some rental agencies’ registration forms include a clause stating that if you cancel after a contract has been prepared, you have to pay between 150 and 200 to cover administration costs — even if the contract hasn’t yet been signed.

This is ostensibly for all the time and effort that went into preparing the lease.

If you are unfamiliar with Swiss laws, you may feel a duty to pay these fees, believing that if you don’t, Swiss rental police will knock on your door.

But you can relax: apart from the fact that there’s no such thing in Switzerland as “rental police”, you don’t owe the agency or landlord anything.

That is because registrations and applications of any kind —  including those for rental properties — are non-binding until both parties have signed them. Up to this point, an application can be withdrawn without incurring any costs, even if the agency / landlord have you believe otherwise.

READ MORE: REVEALED: The six major Swiss cities where rents are falling

Why are landlords / rental agencies engaging in this practice?

To be fair, not all of them will attempt to make you pay for failing to sign the lease. Those who do are hoping you don’t know your legal rights, especially if you are a foreigner who (they hope) is still green behind the ears when it comes to rental regulations in Switzerland.

However, according to the official site of canton of Geneva (but this rule applies nationally), some exceptions could be admissible.

If applicants are not acting in “good faith” — for instance, by belatedly expressing their refusal to sign the lease and delaying the rental process while other potential tenants are kept waiting —  the landlord could ask to be compensated.

This is not a clear black-and-white situation though, as “good faith” calls for subjective judgements, ones that the landlord or rental agency could not make unless they have proof that candidates’ actions were dishonest — which is also difficult to prove.

But even in this case, the landlord “could only invoice his actual costs: the costs of drafting the lease contract and sending it out, for example”, according to the Swiss Tenants Association (ASLOCA).

You should also inform yourself about what your landlord can and cannot demand of you.

“You have to remember that just because something is written in the lease doesn’t mean it’s true”, ASLOCA said.

“Lease law is protective of the tenant and takes into consideration that the latter does not necessarily have the possibility or the resources to read and carefully negotiate any clause of his lease”.

If uncertain of what your rights and obligations are, this official government site provides useful information and  resources, including who, in your canton of residence, can help in case of a dispute with your landlord.

READ MORE: Tenant in Switzerland? Here’s how to apply for a rent reduction