- FC Schalke 04 to open stadium shaped cemetery for club's fans from next month
- Schalke founded in the year 1904 and the cemetery will contain that number of graves
- Schalke now provides a birthing room, baptisms, marriages and now a final resting place
- Boca Juniors of Argentina opened a similar ceremony five years ago
They say football can take over your life and now German Bundesliga side FC Schalke 04 have taken that adage to its extremes.
Schalke fans have long filled Germany's leading football arenas with the chant "Ein Leben lang, Blau und Weiß ein Leben lang" ("a lifelong blue and white") but now, the club has ensured that such devotion can officially last a lifetime -- and beyond.
For devotees of the side lying second in the Bundesliga and currently topping their European Champions League group can, from next month onwards, be laid to rest in a cemetery specifically made for Schalke fans -- one which lies in sight of the team's Veltins-Arena home in Gelsenkirchen.
"You can start your life with Schalke 04 by getting baptized, you can get married at the stadium and now you can be buried at the Schalke cemetery," Schalke's public relations officer Sonja Berger told CNN.
"The Schalke cemetery is a unique project and as far as we know there is nothing comparable in Europe."
The rising fortunes of the Royal Blues have been assisted in recent years by signings of the caliber of former Real Madrid star Raul Gonzalez and current Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, with Schalke having achieved four second-place finishes in the Bundesliga since the turn of the century and reached the last four of the Champions League in 2011.
Off the pitch, the club has also been growing.
Three years ago, Schalke opened a delivery room in the maternity wing of a hospital close to the Veltins-Arena, so that newborns can enter the world in a room with blue and white coloring and where Schalke logos and images adorn the walls.
With the club also providing baptisms and weddings, the introduction of the cemetery project -- which is known as the Schalke Fan Feld -- takes the array of services offered by the club into the afterlife as well.
However, adverse weather conditions have delayed the opening of the historic cemetery -- which features 1,904 plots in commemoration of the year the club was founded -- until the middle of December but fans are already snapping up the limited places.
Given that the team with seven championship crowns (albeit with the last dating back to 1958) has long been one of Germany's most popular sides, plots at a stadium-shaped cemetery -- which will be bedecked in blue-and-white flowers surrounding a tiny rectangular "pitch" featuring two goals and a floral Schalke emblem -- may not last long with over 100 having already been taken.
This is despite a cost of $6,639 (5,406 Euros), a price which does not benefit the Bundesliga club itself but which does guarantee 25 years of grave maintenance, as provided by a company headed up by local real estate agent, and former Schalke trialist, Ender Ulupinar.
With no current plans to extend the one-off project beyond the 1,904 graves available, the Schalke cemetery -- which lies within the city's larger Beckhausen-Sutum cemetery -- will have a certain exclusivity, and one family have already decided to move a late relative's remains from his initial resting place to this new home.
Plots to have already gone include number 04, for obvious reasons, and number 215 which has been allocated to a fan who wanted it in memory of Schalke's leading European triumph in 1997, with the club winning the now-defunct UEFA Cup on 21 May -- or 21/5.
"For a normal person, I think this decision is insane -- but not for me. I have supported Schalke for almost 26 years now so for me, it's just an additional way of showing my support. Either you are a really huge fan or just a fair-weather fan -- I am a really huge supporter, I love my club and think it's a good idea," Arthur Gore, who is just 34, told CNN.
"You pay for the care, so no one needs to care for the grave, and for me, it's like a pioneering project as well, so I am really proud of it. Schalke is part of the culture in Gelsenkirchen because after the mines were closed in our city, there has been a lot of unemployment.
"Without Schalke, there wouldn't be anything here and the opinion of many people, not just myself, is that the city lives from the club."
When asked whether he had made provision for any future family members, the unmarried sales manager laughed freely before admitting it was a topic he had given little thought to.
"These are questions I haven't thought about yet but I do have a girlfriend. I told her I had bought her a grave but she looked surprised -- as she is not a football fan, she doesn't really get it," replied Gore, who says he was attracted by the "unique" nature of the offer.
"One of my married friends also wants to buy a plot and I think his wife will understand as she knows that when she married, she married Schalke as well. Otherwise, I am not sure the marriage would work as being a die-hard supporter, which includes traveling the country, takes up a lot of time."
Despite the high cost, Gore is convinced a number of Schalke fans are so devoted to the club that many will soon embark on setting funds aside to buy a plot in future.
Meanwhile, Ulupinar -- whose wife runs a cemetery garden business -- says the idea came to him after noticing a mix of Schalke pennants, flags, season tickets, player photos and blue-and-white flowers were already decorating hundreds of gravestones in the western city of Gelsenkirchen.
"The feedback has been very good, not just in terms of the number of graves already taken up, which we didn't expect to be so high, but also in terms of the fan and media interest too -- and it hasn't only come from Schalke followers either, but other supporters too," says Ulupinar, 39.
"There has been some criticism though, with some people feeling it is not Christian to designate an area of the cemetery for people of a certain, and smaller, group. But on the whole, people like the idea."
Helpfully for Ulupinar, Hans-Joachim Dohm, a retired pastor and Schalke fan himself, has countered the protests by saying that dozens of supporters had been requesting a special final home with links to the club for a number of years.
Schalke are not the first football club to open a cemetery for their fans, with Argentina's Boca Juniors having created one with 3,000 plots in 2007 while South Africa's Kaizer Chiefs have entered the market in different fashion, offering fans a Funeral Plan which effectively serves as a life insurance policy.