Death in Germany is expensive and many people have trouble paying it, especially during tough economic times. To stem the costs of coffins, cremations and burials, Berliners are discovering discount funeral parlors.
Being laid to rest isn't cheap
Traditionally in Germany the deceased is laid out in a coffin. Family and friends meet at a chapel for a funeral service, after which the casket is carried to a grave and buried. Days later a gravestone is set at the head of the plot, telling the name and birth and death dates of the deceased.
The average German funeral costs €5,000 ($6,100), about double the average monthly income. And with one-third of German households already in debt, many people are hard-pressed to shoulder the financial burden when a family member dies.
Social welfare recipients can apply for the state to assume the costs. But the procedure is complicated, and funeral home directors like Mike Fritz from Bonn don't like to take on such business.
"When you bury a social welfare recipient or all the relatives are social welfare recipients, they all have to assume equal parts for the funeral and file the appropriate applications to the social welfare office," funeral home director Fritz told Deutsche Welle.
But there is an alternative. Germans can go to one of Hartmut Woite's "Berolina Coffin Discount" funeral parlors.
"I buy the coffins by the truck-load," Woite explained. "They come with a truck direct from the factory and bring me 250 coffins. That means I have a totally different price, and I can pass the savings on to my customers. Cremation costs €250. The wood's not great and there's no paint, no varnish, nothing."
But the casket and the undertaker just make up part of the costs. Families also have to pay for either a cemetery plot or for cremation. Here, too, Woite has found a way to avoid the high price Germany's cities and towns charge for such services. He sends corpses for cremation to the neighboring Czech Republic, where costs are significantly lower. Or customers can have their deceased buried in a Czech cemetery.
Three times a week Woite's employees drive back and forth between Germany and the Czech Republic. And although German law requires corpses and ashes to be kept in graveyards, Woite takes advantage of a loophole in the law so his customers can take their loved ones home in an urn.
"Earth mixed with ashes, there's no law about that in Germany," Woite explained. "We bury over there and bring back the earth mixed with ashes, and that's what I hand over to the people."
Woite has been heavily criticized by competitors for his Czech business. They say he's irreverent, and they call the journeys to the Czech Republic "corpse tourism." But that hasn't stopped the undertaker. He's planning an organized bus trip to the Czech Republic in April so customers can see for themselves where they or their loved ones may one day be cremated.