Germany's Tired Graveyards A Rotten Way to Go?

Part 2: Like Leathery Mummies


The city of Cologne has ordered a total of 5,000 concrete vaulted chambers and the nearby town of Herne has purchased 3,000. Many wealthy private individuals order these sarcophagi, made of pre-fab components, as a final resting place. Ufer delivered three of them recently to Kürten in the Rhineland for relatives of the late composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

These barren chambers are meant to offer the rot-friendly atmosphere that graveyard soils can no longer provide. Dirk Schoenen, a physician at the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the Bonn University Clinic, recently examined a concrete burial chamber to assess its effectiveness.

His alarming observations: In some sarcophagi, even "the flower arrangements on the coffins were still intact. The flowers and the leaves had merely turned brown." What was worse, the dead had by no means turned to dust, as was hoped. "The soft tissue of the corpses was partially still very recognizable, although its volume was significantly reduced."

The manufacturers of the chambers had made their concrete containers watertight -- in reaction to the lessons learned from coagulated cadavers in the graveyard mire. But the waterproof environment of the chambers actually caused the deceased to dry out and take on the leathery consistency of mummies.

Some manufacturers have fine-tuned their product and installed filters in the concrete crypts. Now the funeral trade has pinned its hopes on another Swiss invention called "Rapid Rot," a fungal extract designed to accelerate the decomposition of wooden coffins. But all these measures are marred by the usual pangs of doubt in the burial business. "We'll have to wait a few years before we can confirm if it really works," says Kettler, the engineer.

This debate over the professional way to bury the dead has hit the sector as it grapples with a huge image crisis. Years of inflexibility, says Manfred Zagar, who heads the German Association of Cemetery Managers, have led to two very different classes of cemeteries.

"These days, there are basically two types of cemeteries," observes tomb tradesman Kettler. "The refined ones that look like parks -- and the run-down ones."

Free-Market Graves

Not much help can be expected from politicians. A remark made by one mayor has become legendary in the business. "I can't win a single election with a cemetery," he said, "but it could make me lose any election."

An election could perhaps be won with the main cemetery in Karlsruhe, Germany. Its manager, Matthäus Vogel, has created one of the most modern and aesthetically-pleasing funerary grounds in Europe.

His success story is mainly the fruit of an intrepid pioneer who introduced the laws of the marketplace to mankind's final resting place. Vogel distributed leaflets to colleagues with titles like "How can cemeteries remain competitive? -- The latest market strategies!" He was one of the first in Germany to recognize the increasing demand for made-to-measure options for funerals and graves.

"All our efforts should focus on the customer," says Vogel. It's an approach that certainly makes good business sense: €16 billion ($23 billion) are currently spent annually in Germany on funeral-related expenses.

Of course the dead will continue to come, no matter what. But professionals in the field see this as a long outdated platitude. In Karlsruhe the customers of tomorrow are already being enticed today with attractive offers, like adopting a tree. Woodland burials allow the deceased to be buried under a selected oak or beech tree for 50 years, with prices starting as low as €3,500.

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