In hard times, Germans save on means when it comes to the end
BERLIN DIARY:Her final journey was supposed to take Anja’s mother from the funeral home to the crematorium. Instead, the 61-year-old’s body was taken on an unscheduled jaunt from a Berlin car park and over the border into Poland.
At about 5am on October 15th, thieves broke into the white transporter van parked behind the funeral home and headed east down the autobahn, unaware that they had 12 coffins in the back.
The bodies had been loaded into the van for the 200km trip to the Saxon city of Meissen for a cut-price cremation. Instead they turned up, eight days later, unloaded in a forest in Konin near Poznan, 300km from Berlin.
“We’re not sure how long the coffins were here, it’s a place locals come to pick mushrooms,” said local mayor Andrzej Rybicki.
Anja eventually got her mother’s body back, but only after paying the transport costs.
The ghoulish story has served as a cautionary tale in the increasingly competitive Berlin funeral market.
Although 80 people die here on average each day, the overall numbers are declining while the number of undertakers is growing.
To attract attention in a crowded market, new operators are advertising their services online and on bright hoardings near hospitals: Billigbestatter.de( cheapundertaker.de) or Bestattungsdiscounter24.de( Burialdiscounts24.de).
One discounter’s advertising slogan is “Provocative but not impious”. As with budget airlines, price-conscious Germans who book ahead can rest in peace knowing they got one final bargain on the way to the graveyard: €949 all-in, compared to an average burial spend of €2,500.
Given that this is the country that gave us Lidl and Aldi, it’s perhaps not surprising that canny German consumers have embraced the cult of discount undertakers or that these new arrivals are expanding their market share with ruthless cost-cutting.
The promise of a cheap funeral first raised its head in 2004 after German health insurers stopped making a contribution to funeral costs, causing a drift away from traditional burials and religious tradition.
An added factor in the low- cost funeral boom is the disint- egration of family structures, meaning that in some areas of Berlin one in three burials is an anonymous affair, paid for by social services.
With the squeeze on, it is not unusual for undertakers to do under-the-table deals or spread unflattering gossip about the competition.
“Last Christmas one of my competitors gave the director of a nursing home a Mercedes,” complained one undertaker to the Berliner Zeitung daily.
In Berlin’s burgeoning battle for bodies, vanishing acts are not as rare as you might hope. Two years ago, the body of a woman vanished from a city hospital three hours after she died. “The relatives were informed immediately that the mother and grandmother had been kidnapped by an undertaker,” said the court report during the subsequent trial.
As distraught relatives considered what to do next, the woman’s daughter got a phone call from an undertaker. He noticed her number in her mother’s hospital file, he said, and was wondering if they had decided on burial or cremation. The grieving daughter hung up and contacted her undertaker of choice to collect the body.
While Germany’s Undertakers Association complains of the growth of what it calls a cost- conscious “disposal mentality”, many operators, particularly in eastern Germany, are changing with the times and offer would- be customers free bus trips to Poland and the Czech Republic.
Every day, busloads of pensioners arrive for a crematorium tour, get a price list and, on the way home, often sign pre-death contracts for low- cost funerals. Now a cross-border market, some Polish and Czech crematoriums report that every fifth body they process is German.
Faced with cheap Czech competition and funeral discounters at home, many traditional Berlin undertakers are outsourcing services to cheaper operators in eastern Germany. According to figures from 2011, almost a third of Germans now choose a burial costing €1,200 or less.
The disappearing dozen from Berlin, for instance, were en route to Meissen. Renowned for its porcelain, the Saxon city is also the home of Germany’s cheapest crematorium.
Yesterday cremator Jorg Schaldach confirmed that the 12 bodies finally arrived back from Poland, ending their journey last week. Schaldach offers cremations around the clock, every 35 minutes, 1,000 a month – 200,000 so far and counting. His price: €188.90.
“We have a good price but people also value our speed: whoever comes to us today is in the urn tomorrow,” he told The Irish Times. “You shouldn’t have to apologise for being effective.”