German state prosecutors are investigating nine crematorium workers and an accomplice who are suspected of having routinely sold off gold tooth fillings sifted from the ashes of hundreds of corpses in a case that has evoked disturbing memories of the Nazi Holocaust.
The nine stokers employed at Hamburg's Öjendorf crematorium have all been suspended from duty while prosecutors conduct their investigation. The probe follows a police raid on their homes in late August which netted €146,000 in unaccounted cash.
"We suspect the crematorium employees of having sold the gold fillings of the deceased over a period of several years," Wilhelm Möllers, Hamburg's chief state prosecutor, told the city's Abendblatt newspaper.
He said that the stokers appeared to have made searching the ashes for "metal leftovers" a routine operation and that they were suspected of pocketing their findings and selling them on to a third party. A tenth man, also being investigated, was a dealer in coins and is believed to be their accomplice.
The case has shocked Germany's respected world of undertakers, cemetery managers and crematoria operators, which prides itself on its discretion and respect for the dead. "We are shaken and saddened," said Rainer Wirz, who is in charge of Hamburg's cemeteries and crematoria. "Our staff are duty-bound to treat the deceased with dignity and respect. This applies to ashes as well," he insisted.
However, other reports have suggested that the crematorium staff did not just search ashes for gold fillings. One unnamed former crematorium worker told Hamburg's Morgenpost newspaper that staff plundered corpses for every bit of jewellery on them before they were cremated. He said they also stripped the coffins of their handles and sold them off. Claiming that in many German crematoria staff did the same, he told the newspaper that the Hamburg crematorium ringleader "pockets the gold and goes skiing in Davos every year on the profits".
Hamburg's crematoria, along with many others across Germany, insist that for many years, they have operated a policy under which all the valuable remains of the deceased are collected after cremation, weighed and then sold off to companies that deal in precious metals. The profits are then given to charity.
The city insists that since 2006, it has donated the proceeds gained from its properly retrieved gold fillings to child cancer-relief projects. Its crematoria operators decided to alert prosecutors late last year after they noticed a big drop in the amounts of gold and other precious metals that were normally found after cremation.
The case has nevertheless raised serious questions about the probity of Germany's crematoria operators, who incinerate the corpses of some 400,000 each year. In a report entitled "The secret trade in tooth gold", the German undertakers' trade magazine Bestatterzeitung last week asked managers at 80 German crematoria to come clean about what they did with precious metals found in ashes.
Only six replied, saying that they either left the metals in the urns that were handed to relatives after cremation or donated the proceeds to charity. One said he was so concerned about preventing the theft of gold that he kept his crematorium under round-the-clock video surveillance. The remainder refused to respond.
The magazine also revealed that many crematoria and undertakers appeared to exploit the grief of relatives by simply not mentioning the issue of precious metals. Unless relatives themselves stipulated otherwise, they simply divided the amounts with the undertaker who had provided the corpse.
The Bestatterzeitung pointed out that the practice could not be easily controlled, because the removal of precious metals from a corpse did not automatically constitute an offence under German law, but fell in a legal "grey area".Reuse content