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Crossing the Border to Go Six Feet Under

A maverick mortician is providing cash-strapped and subsidy-starved Germans with discount funeral service -- in the Czech Republic.

September 07, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The suntanned undertaker slips into his office, lifts six tiny urns and ponders a question few would utter aloud: "If Germans will cross the Czech border for prostitutes and cheap cigarettes, why not to be cremated?"

Hartmut Woite is a maverick when it comes to death. Twenty-four years ago, the Berlin mortician trundled West German bodies into the communist East to save on funeral costs. "All they wanted over there," he says, "was quick cash."

Today, trailing a vanload of coffins, Woite rides a private bus to the Czech Republic, where cremations cost about half as much as in Germany.

Such ingenuity -- his critics call it the macabre side of opportunism -- define the man in charge of the perhaps unseemly named, but quite popular, Discount Coffins. Woite says business is up 40% since Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government eliminated the 525-euro ($635) "death subsidy" Germans received for their funerals.

The undertaker's good fortune is tied to the bewilderment and anger sweeping a nation that has been the epitome of the welfare state for decades. Economic and social reforms pushed by Schroeder to keep the country globally competitive are cutting health and unemployment benefits and forcing union members to work more hours for the same pay.

Thousands of jobless and growing numbers from the middle class are protesting in Berlin, Magdeburg, Leipzig and other cities. Most Germans agreed that reform was necessary but said they didn't anticipate the breadth and sting of the cutbacks. Faced with a 10.5% unemployment rate and a huge federal deficit, Germans are finding they have to pay more for doctor's visits, tooth fillings and caskets.

"People are racking their brains and thinking, 'How do I bury my loved one?' " said Woite, a meticulously dressed man whose brazen capitalism got him bounced out of the local funeral directors guild. "It's time to offer people affordability."

Those who file up the shady street and into Woite's yellow-stucco funeral home represent the turmoil in Germany as a harsher ethos replaces egalitarian ideals. Working-class Germans -- among the highest paid in the world -- complain that politicians and executives are not even wincing as workers lose entitlements and class divisions widen. In the poor eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony, extremist right-wing parties are expected to make gains in this month's elections.

"It's a mean thing to cut the death subsidy," said Lutz Garczorz, who hired Woite to arrange for his father's cremation and interment in an anonymous sliver of land in Vysocany, Czech Republic. "Yes, I would have liked to bury my father in a cemetery close to us. But if you don't have the money, what can you do?

"Our friends attacked us, saying, 'You got rid of your father in a very cheap way. Coffin Discount, eh? What a name.' "

Garczorz's father, Ignatz, was a retired metal worker who, like millions of Germans, relied on the national health insurance system. Two years ago, the death subsidy under that system was 1,050 euros, but this year when his father died, Garczorz received nothing. A lighting planner, Garczorz was laid off in 2002 when competition forced his company to downsize.

"I'm collecting unemployment benefits now, but those are being cut, and after 12 months I'll receive 200 euros less," Garczorz said. "There's always been unemployment, but it has never lasted so long or affected so many."

The other day Woite whisked past the glint of display caskets in his funeral home. The air was scented with flowers and cleanser and whiffs of perfume. Mellifluous and wearing a tie with a book motif, Woite noted that he recently dropped a Polish supplier for raising prices and said Ukraine made a sturdy box these days.

Government reforms and uncertainty are making Germans more frugal than usual, he said. He began arranging cremations in Vysocany five years ago. He hires a bus and fills it with potential clients for the five-hour trip across the Czech border. A van carrying bodies drives ahead.

Cremations are done in an unadorned building near a restored 16th century cloister. Most of the ashes are buried in a nearby cemetery. Families receive a grapefruit-sized urn with a scoop of ash and soil to take home, which is normally forbidden in Germany, but legal in the Czech Republic. Woite also provides beer and lunch -- all for about half the price of a standard German funeral.

Germans have long headed east for bargains. They buy pottery in Poland. They have dental work done in Hungary. Black-market cigarettes, prostitutes and garden gnomes are cheaper across any eastern border.

"I'm the only German undertaker doing this. I don't know why," Woite said. "These days you have to give people alternatives."

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