As a funeral director, Fritz Roth wants people to accept that death is part of life. In a way, he sees himself as a spiritual counselor as much as an undertaker.
Fritz Roth has a mission
It's Sunday, and for undertaker Fritz Roth just another working day. But as it happens, this particular funeral service isn't just like any other. Today, he's burying a close personal friend.
Fritz Roth is a typically jovial Rhinelander. Now 60, he sees his job as an undertaker as a vocation. He's been director of the Puetz-Roth funeral home in Bergisch Gladbach for more than 25 years.
At first glance, his funeral home looks like an upmarket country hotel, complete with a neat, well-tended garden. Over the years, Fritz has gained a nationwide reputation – not least as the founder of Germany's first private graveyard.
"I believe it's important to maintain a natural approach to dying, death and mourning," he says.
Anyone who talks to him immediately gets a sense of his passion for his work. His first priority is to help the bereaved deal with their grief.
"I want to encourage people to accept death," he says.
If Fritz Roth often sounds like a pastor, that's because this is how he sees himself, to some extent.
His deeply spiritual approach is no surprise given his background. When he was ten, Fritz Roth went to live in a monastery in Steyl in The Netherlands – lured by promises of a football pitch and a swimming pool. He spent nine years there. But even though he has always been willing to give things a try, he couldn't bring himself to commit to a lifetime of celibacy.
He left, and went on to study business in Cologne. Then his father-in-law introduced him to an old friend who was looking for someone to take over his funeral parlor.
That's where his story comes full circle – because today, Fritz Roth is burying his father-in-law, the man who first suggested he become an undertaker.
Fritz Roth in his funeral parlor
"This is a very special day for me," he says. "In my sadness, I can experience for myself everything I have ever tried to convey to people about the culture of bereavement."
Fritz Roth was born in 1949 on his parents' farm in Eikamp, North Rhine Westphalia. He says that being the only boy among four sisters was like "winning the lottery." Everyone spoilt him rotten, including his grandmother, who died when he was six. It was a formative experience.
"I was able to hold my dead grandmother's hand," he says. He explains that this allowed him to grasp her death – that it meant she would no longer be there to make him hot chocolate and treats. Although he was so young, he understood the difference between life and death.
Today, he has a special interest in how children cope with bereavement. "They show their feelings, they scream things like 'I want my mummy to stay' – but then they turn around and ask for an ice-cream," he marvels.
Death was an integral part of his own life while he was growing up. A further four siblings died at birth. But he has only happy memories of life as a young boy on a farm, surrounded by chickens, cows and pigs.
"There was such as feeling of safety," he recalls. "We would all eat at a big table, then I would climb on to my father's shoulders and we would all take it in turns to tell stories."
Fritz Roth talking to Deutsche Welle reporter José Ospina-Valencia
His father was a very cultured man. Fritz Roth remembers going on hikes with him, and listening to him tell stories of secret castles and mythical creatures.
"I inherited my imagination and love of art from him," says Roth. "Art is about images, and we can use images to express feelings we can't fully understand." Such as death.
Fritz Roth feels strongly that contemporary society needs more spirituality. Asked what he means by that, his response is: "Take death personally again!" Then he quotes a few lines by Jewish German-language poet Mascha Kaléko: "Before my own death is me do not fear for. Only before the death of those, which are me close. How am I to live, if they are no longer there?"
Author: José Ospina-Valencia (jp)
Editor: Rina Goldenberg