BACKGROUND: Official information on the place of death has not been collected by the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics since 1987. Thus, no statements can be made for the developments in Switzerland. METHODS: Physicians from the German speaking part of Switzerland who had filled in a death certificate between June 1 and October 30, 2001 were sent a questionnaire about circumstances of the specific death case. The frequencies of the place of death (at home, in hospital, in home for elderly, in nursing home, other place) were compared with the official data of the years 1969 until 1986. Using logistic regressions predictors for the place of death were estimated. RESULTS: In 2001 in the German speaking part of Switzerland death occurred most frequently in hospital (37.2% of all death cases) followed by a home for elderly (33.5%) and dying at home (22.7%). Relevant predictors for the place of death were cause of death, sex, marital status and partly religion. Whereas between 1969 and 1986 a development towards dying in institutions was found, between 1986 and 2001 the place of death shifted within the institutions from hospitals to homes for elderly. CONCLUSION: The relevance of the home for elderly as the place of death will further grow in the future. To allow people to fulfill the tasks of caring for their relatives at home the ambulant emergency services will have to be augmented and relatives have to be motivated and supported.