Why German undertaking is a dying trade

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The Independent Online
THESE ARE bad times in Germany, but business has been exceptionally unkind to one sector. After seven lean years, 1998 has turned out to be another dead loss for undertakers, and there seems little prospect of an upturn before the millennium. The industry is faced with the classic economic conundrum: how to survive in a market of declining demand and soaring supply.

For once, the German service mentality - or lack of it - is not at fault. The problem is that there are simply not enough customers to go around. One needs to take only a casual glance at the actuarial charts to discover why.

With average life expectancy pushing 80 years, Germans born around 1918 should be getting ready to shuffle off their mortal coils. But they are not: since 1990, when funeral directors received 921,000 commissions, their customer base has collapsed, save for a small blip in 1993. In 1997, 60,000 fewer Germans departed this life than seven years earlier.

The health service is excellent and ever improving, but medical science cannot take full credit for Germans' miraculous longevity. The reason for the demographic dip is that a disproportionate number of Germans born between 1919 and 1920 were called away prematurely in the years 1939-45. The undertakers are now reaping the war dividend.

With falling demand, the laws of economics should dictate either greater competition - cheaper or more lavish funerals, perhaps - or fewer undertakers. It is true that brass-plaque family businesses in rural Germany are being exterminated by stiff competition, but the press is also full of horror stories of a dramatic deterioration in service.

Not only are pall-bearers said to be no longer up to scratch, there are reports of undertakers leaving corpses outside the chapel and departing before the funeral begins. Bodies are being buried in the wrong graves, and coffins often fail to match specifications. Worst of all, when a firm goes bust, its charges are held hostage by the morgues, until bills are settled and the company is properly liquidated.

The problem, as the German media see it, is that undertaking does not enjoy the sort of protection accorded to other domains. In virtually any trade, rigid laws apply, often laid down by guilds centuries ago.But there has never been an undertakers' guild, so there are almost no regulations governing the disposal of corpses.

Anyone can set up shop on payment of 35 Marks (pounds 12) and despite the woeful shortage of customers, the number of undertakers has shot up since 1990 from under 3,000 to 3,700.

Everyone's piling in and you can have an eco-funeral, in a coffin made from ecologically-correct timber, or be buried in the colours and trademarked regalia of your football team.

Established firms grumble about the newcomers' lack of expertise and sensitivity but in the intense competition, both old-timers and interlopers are resorting to despicable methods - old people's homes are growing weary of the constant hustle of funeral salesmen.

Worst of all, the Americans are muscling in on the business. One large US-based concern renowned for its "pile 'em high" techniques has already carved out for itself a large niche, and aims to become the busiest funeral firm in Germany within five to 10 years. Unless Germans start dying in larger numbers soon, their undertakers are doomed.