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SPIEGEL ONLINE

01/07/2008 03:57 PM

Germany's Tired Graveyards

A Rotten Way to Go?

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Strange as it may seem, the dead have quit rotting in German cemeteries -- they are turning into wax-like corpses. Will the use of burial chambers solve the problem? Or is extensive soil reconditioning the only viable alternative?

Cemeteries are supposed to be the quietest places on earth. But that notion may soon have to be laid to rest: Exhumation experts are currently conducting large-scale digging operations in German graveyards, belying the very concept of eternal peace.

Corpses are no longer decaying in many German cemeteries. Instead, the deceased become waxen, an uncanny process that has become so rampant it can no longer be ignored.

A high moisture content in the subsoil combined with low temperatures and a lack of oxygen are the main culprits. These conditions transform the soft tissue of many bodies not into humus, but rather "a gray-white, paste-like, soft mass," says soil expert Rainer Horn from the Christian Albrecht University in Kiel, Germany.

As time passes, the remains of the departed coagulate to form "a hard, durable substance." When knocked with a spade, the wax-like bodies sound hollow.

This "grave wax" buildup has disturbed the natural cycle of decay -- and created a horror scenario for burial authorities. When bodies don't decompose, their graves can't be reused -- a common practice in Germany. Contrary to many other countries, where final resting places are traditionally maintained in perpetuity, Germany recycles cemetery plots after a period of 15 to 25 years. Experience has shown that the earthly remains of the deceased rot away almost entirely in this amount of time, but only under favorable soil conditions.

Many German cemeteries today have far from ideal conditions. To make matters worse, the problem appears to be a homemade one: "Huge blunders committed over the past few decades" are to blame, says engineer Heinrich Kettler, who specializes in reconditioning soils that have become unsuitable for decomposition.

Critics say that many communities acted with negligence when creating new cemeteries. Without giving much thought to the consequences, they purchased soil with a high clay content from local farmers -- the worst possible substratum for burial due to its poor drainage qualities. Air -- an essential element in the process of putrification -- can barely permeate compact layers of clay.

Muslim immigrants in Germany tend to arrange for their bodies to be shipped home to Turkey or Lebanon for the same reason. A body buried in a shroud, in accordance with Islamic tradition, won't decay in damp soil -- which means shroud burial is illegal in many parts of Germany.

Swiss Ingenuity

This widespread problem has given rise to an entire industry that aims to save the day with new methods of rot. The latest innovation on this morbid market is the Swiss-engineered Linder reconditioning system -- a severe method that involves deep incursions into cemeteries. After excavating the unusable soil, Linder fills the area with a "custom mixture of topsoil, woodchips and gravel." Finishing touches to the burial place include a drainage system with additional filter and seepage layers.

The approach has its supporters: The Institute for Forensic Medicine of the University of Zurich has stated that the Linder method "provides nearly ideal conditions for rapid and complete decomposition of both the soft tissue and the skeleton within just a few years."

Still, it may prove difficult to gain acceptance in Germany for this treatment. One major disadvantage is that the process requires the waxen corpses be reburied elsewhere, in auxiliary graves.

"You can do something like that in Switzerland, but not in Germany where death is traditionally a taboo subject," says Bernhard Ufer. The salesman for BayWa AG in Karlstadt, Germany offers a gentler alternative: burial chambers -- a product that has become a hot-selling item at German cemeteries.

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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