Dirk Rieber 2017

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Death and the city: how cemeteries cope with change

‘He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.’ This statement of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom James Harold Wilson in 1967, exemplifies the most common perception of cemeteries as being insusceptible to change. But cemeteries are not ahistoric places and like any other human institutions they are exposed to changing socio-cultural, demographic, political, and economic parameters to which they are bound to respond. Due to its volatile history and development the City of Berlin is equipped with an infrastructure meant to serve about 5 million citizens. Among this oversupply of infrastructure are approximately 224 cemeteries with an overall area of designated burial space twice as much as needed until the year 2050. Vacant plots are a common sight nowadays on German cemeteries and many of them are operating below break-even. This raises questions about the operational efficiency of cemeteries and many cities and municipalities are looking for alternative usages of their burial grounds to reduce their financial overhead. But cemeteries are not just normal enterprises; every business decision has to be made with the awareness about the extraordinary background of the death care industry, its perception and recognition by the larger public, as well as the respectful intercourse with the bereaved and the proper handling of the deceased. This study revolves around the change management and the strategic management of cemeteries in Germany especially triggered by demographic shrinking effects, the fiscal belt-tightening of German cities and municipalities, and the changing burial customs.


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