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Business

Grave-digging for beginners

Becoming a funeral director might not top most people's list of to-die-for professions, but Germany's national training center for undertakers has no trouble filling its courses.

Gravestones in a green cemetery

Trainee undertakers learn a wide range of skills

The academy for undertakers in the southern town of Muennerstadt is the only school of its kind in Germany, and as such, it is the place that many youngsters go to learn the skills they need to embark on a career with the dead and their dearly beloved.

The very notion of training for funerals raises as many questions as it answers, but after five years in operation, the academy is well-equipped for the job, which entails counseling, embalming, organizing and sometimes even grave-digging.

In the modern world, and at the academy, what used to amount to back-breaking work with a shovel is now done with special excavators, small enough to fit between existing graves without making too much of a mess. Operating the machines at the school's training cemetery is an essential part of the young funeral directors' course. But there's more to it than simply pressing a few buttons.

As instructor Stefan Rommel told Deutsche Welle, there is a lot that can go wrong when digging a grave. It's not uncommon for walls to collapse or tombstones to topple over, and in order to prevent that from happening, students have to learn how to assess the structure of the ground and the properties of the soil.

Practice makes perfect, and so they stage mock funerals in which the only thing missing is the corpse.

A man seen from the back, preparing the ground

Students must learn about soil structure and safety regulations

"We pretend that a funeral has taken place,” Rommel explains. “And we do it in keeping with workplace safety regulations, and practice closing the grave safely so nobody gets hurt.”

More than digging holes

Academy student Mirko Altmann is sitting at the digger's controls. When he graduates, the former math student plans to join his family's undertaking business in the Rhineland.

Although the job of grave digging falls to the cemetery management in his local area, he has to learn how to do it if he wants to graduate from the academy as a state-certified funeral director. Grave-digging for beginners is no mean feat.

"We have 90 minutes time to erect the container which the earth goes into, to measure the grave and then dismantle everything afterwards,” Altmann says. “We've been practicing for three hours and still haven't got much done.”

Student, Mirco Altmann in a yellow hard-hat

Student Mirco Altmann is going to join his family's undertaking business

In joining a family undertaking business Mirko Altmann is keeping alive a tradition long inherent in the profession. But very few of the academy's students say they are there because they want to follow in their parents footsteps. Most enrolled because it is quite simply what they want to do.

“There are commercial, medical, manual, interpersonal and decorative aspects to the job and many more besides,” student Marcel van Baars explains. “The scope of duties means you're never stuck in one place, and that's why I fell in love with the profession.”

Hygiene first

One thing aspiring funeral directors have to be able to do is a good make-up job. Away from the practice cemetery and back in the hygiene room at the academy, Heiko Maecherle is dressed in green surgical scrubs and is swabbing a plastic head as he gives his students invaluable tips about how to treat a dead body.

A hearse

Hearses are an essential part of an undertaker's equipment

"It is best to apply moisturizer to scratch wounds from a fall because it stops the edges from drying out and going brown and crusty,” he tells them.

He shows them how to apply make-up using an airbrush, and tutors them in how to counteract the unpleasant smells synonymous with a corpse. It is this part of the job that would send most people running, but as 22-year-old Dominik Roth told Deutsche Welle, when it is done well, it really can help a lot of people in their hour of greatest need.

"Relatives come to us and they are beside themselves, they have nobody, they have lost a loved one and they come to you and you are the first person to receive them,” he says. “We can make give them something beautiful and we give them a great farewell.”

Reporter: Heiner Kiesel (tkw)
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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