Discounting death

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Kristen Allen - [email protected]
Discounting death
Photo: DPA

Discount supermarkets and economy airlines have long done a roaring trade in Germany, but an increasing number of Germans are taking their thriftiness to the grave. The Local’s Kristen Allen reports on the trend toward bargain burials and anonymous funerals.


Earlier this month, reports of a deceased man dubbed the "lonely corpse" made headlines across Germany. After the man died suddenly in Austria, his family in Schleswig-Holstein refused to claim the body and assume the costs of its cross-border shipment and final resting place.

While the incident may have provided a moment of morbid fascination for the public, it highlighted a sombre fact. The number of families who can’t afford to lay their loved ones to rest has been on the rise in Germany for the last several years.

After years of cuts to funeral benefits provided by state health insurers, they were entirely done away with in January 2004. This combined with the effects of the bad economy has resulted in scores of self-proclaimed Billigbestatter, or “cheap funeral homes,” cropping up across the country. But some families can’t even afford bargain-rate funerals, which start as low as €400 for basic cremation services. Instead, many Germans are being forced to turn their deceased loved ones over to municipal authorities for affordable burial.

“There are a lot of these discount undertakers opening up, which is a signal that people are looking only at prices and not the quality of a funeral,” spokesperson for the BDB German association of undertakers Kerstin Gernig told The Local. “They’re advertising ferociously – with slogans like 'we do the cheapest burials in Germany’ and ‘we cremate for less than €400'.”

Of some 140 funeral homes in Berlin, a large proportion use what Stephan Hadraschek calls “price-based advertising.” The spokesperson for Otto Berg, a large funeral home in operation since 1879, said discount prices were often misleading because they exclude municipal fees and taxes.

The average price of a funeral at Otto Berg is around €2,200, but Hadraschek said the company offers complete services for as low as €1,000 – a price comparable to discount undertakers’ rates.

“But we definitely don’t want to be associated with this because there are differences in service quality, the way the family is treated, and at the cemetery,” he told The Local.

More affordable options often include sending bodies abroad to places like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland for cremation, burial and ash scattering. Not only are prices more reasonable, but there are fewer restrictive regulations, he said. Ashes, for example, can only be scattered on designated fields in Germany – but many people have a more pleasing landscape in mind for their final moment with a loved one’s remains.

Modern-day pauper’s grave

But for the rising number of people who find even budget funerals too pricey, there is the state option, called Sozialbestattung. Because each municipality deals with state-funded funerals separately, there is no national registry to precisely measure just how many there have been in recent years. But the BDB’s Gernig said that by all accounts the number of these modern-day pauper’s funerals have risen significantly across the nation since 2004.

Berlin’s central Mitte district saw the numbers quadruple between 2001 and 2009, according to statistics gathered by news agency DPA. Meanwhile the state of Saxony’s costs for Sozialbestattung rose by almost 40 percent between 2005 and 2008 to reach €3.1 million, according to Aeternitas, an independent consumer initiative focused on the funeral industry.

Though standards vary between individual communities, these state-funded disposals are often so basic that they are anonymous and exclude any kind of funeral service. But anonymity is also becoming more prevalent in general. Up to 50 percent of the deceased in large German cities are disposed of anonymously, Gernig told The Local. Annual statistics for Berlin show that anonymous burials grew from 22.2 percent in 1992 to 41.4 percent in 2009.

While anonymity is often a product of price concerns, it also signals a change in values related to what the industry calls “burial culture.”

“When you walk through cemeteries – and I’ve done this often around the world – you notice that they are changing significantly,” Gernig said. “In the 1900s they were representative of the middle classes, with self-concept oriented burial culture, and lavish, wonderful angels, expensive headstones, and mausoleums. Today you see that what remains are so-called urn plots, which are tiny – and if not that then anonymous graves.”

An individualisation of grief

Both Gernig and Hadraschek said the trend is known as a “waste-disposal mentality” within the industry, but added that the phrase over-simplifies the reality: a combination of the modern need for expediency and the individualisation of grief.

Even wealthy people are opting for simpler details.

“You notice that even in situations where money is no problem, customers spend less because it’s simply not as important as it used to be,” Hadraschek said.

Before death, many people also specify that they wish for anonymous burial or cremation to spare their loved ones the expense and effort of maintaining a cemetery plot. Still others simply choose options outside the cemetery.

“There is a trend toward people still wanting a certain place for a memorial, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a cemetery any longer,” Hadraschek said. “Some create an online memorial or an altar at home. The cemetery is no longer the place people have to go in order to grieve.”

Calling the increase in minimalist funerals a threat burial culture would be “culturally pessimistic,” Gernig said, explaining that funeral homes are using creative solutions to accommodate budget-conscious customers.

Some have taken to erecting stele in cemeteries where they engrave the name and dates of birth and death for those who would have otherwise been buried anonymously.

“This is a wonderful initiative, because the people are able to avoid pricey gravestones, but not at the expense of having a place where they can lay flowers and honour the dead,” she said. “It’s been very well-received.”


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