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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


How to avoid wasps this summer in Switzerland

Milder winters and springs mean we see more wasps in Switzerland this summer. Here is how to legally (and successfully) avoid them.

How to avoid wasps this summer in Switzerland

If you feel like you are never alone anymore – because there is always a pesky little wasp around – and the number of nests has grown significantly this summer, this might be the case.

As the planet gets hotter and winters and springs have milder temperatures, there are more wasps than usual buzzing around Europe this summer.

In France, pest control companies even call 2022 the “year of the wasp”, as The Local France reported.

More wasps are buzzing around – and they are angry

There is an abundance of wasps this summer even in Switzerland and they are not exceptionally good-natured right now, according to Daniel Cherix, a leading insect specialist at the University of Lausanne. The more wasps there are, the more in competition they are for food sources — which includes your outdoor barbecue food or bottle of soda.

The hot weather makes it easier for the wasps to work more hours feeding the larvae. However, the longer and harder they work, the more tired and hungrier they become.

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland is abuzz with ‘tired and angry’ wasps

This means that, just like their human counterparts, they need to rest and eat, making a beeline for the nearest food source.

“If there is no prey, they have to fly longer. So they will start to get tired and angry”, Cherix said, which doesn’t bode well for the nearest available human.

This situation is expected to worsen until the autumn; until then, the wasp colonies will continue to get bigger and presumably angrier and more tired.

How can I avoid wasps?

Even though the number of wasps is rising in Switzerland, only two of the nine local wasp species are attracted by human food. Additionally, they are all peaceful as long as you don’t get too close to their nest, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment says.

The government also states several measures that can be taken to avoid wasps. It reiterates, though, that if any of these animals are nearby, it is vital to “behave calmly and not to make hectic movements that could make the wasps feel threatened”.

wasp nest bee hive

Some nests are harmless and shouldn’t be disturbed. (Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash)

Wasps can be kept away by insect screens, covering food and drinks served outside, drinking sweet drinks with a straw when outdoors, and removing and cleaning dishes and food after eating out. The Environment office also recommends removing fallen fruits under fruit trees in the garden to avoid attracting was.

People can also spray individual wasps (but never nests!) with water to get them to fly away.

READ ALSO: Swiss study says bee-harming pesticides present in 75 percent of honey worldwide

To prevent nesting, it’s important to close small openings in and around your house. Wasps like to nest in dark, shelter places, such as attics and any holes in the buildings. Recognising a nest early can help you prevent it from growing and adopt the proper measures – such as calling specialised assistance if necessary.

What to do if I find a wasp nest in my home?

There are specific rules of conduct to be followed if you find a wasp nest, especially since wasps will attack if they feel their nest threatened. Wasps stings are usually harmless unless you are allergic, but they can be painful.

A relocation could be necessary if the nest is near homes with children, allergic people or the elderly. If it is harmless or summer is close to ending, though, many specialists will advise you just to wait it out – wasps will die when it gets cold.

A specialised service needs to be hired if the nest needs to be relocated.

The last resort is to kill the nest using chemicals, but this needs to be done by specialists with federal approval to use such biocides. In some cantons, environmental protection rules forbid using chemicals without a proper license.