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Cremation tourists flock to the Netherlands

Published by in English ·

Geleen, Netherlands - Hans-Joachim Friedrich has been offering an unusual service to his customers for over 15 years.

The 60-year-old's day begins at 7:30 in the morning in a car park in the western German city of Leverkusen when Friedrich's small bus pulls up to collect a small group of pensioners who have gathered for their day-trip.

The destination is the Dutch town of Geleen where the group with an average age of 65 are brought on a tour of a crematorium. Friedrich has been in the undertaking business for 44 years but only began his tours to Dutch crematoriums when he realised that there was a market for the service due to a shortage of such facilities in Germany.

Today, there is an excess of capacity for cremations in Germany but many people still make the trip across the border to the Netherlands because prices are much lower and bureaucracy is at a minimum.

'A lot of people have pulled out today due to the warm weather but this has the advantage of meaning everyone will be able to inspect the facilities individually,' Friedrich tells his customers over the coach's onboard microphone during the journey.

'We want to sort out everything in advance,' says 68-year-old Hanns-Dieter Kulozik, a former manager with the pharmaceutical company Bayer, when asked why he has signed up for the trip. Klaus Niesel expresses the same opinion as he sips on a coffee given to him by the manager of the crematorium.

'It's everyone's turn at some point, it makes no sense to close your eyes to reality,' says the 72-year-old.

After approximately 80 minutes, the bus arrives at the Nedermaas crematorium near Maastricht, an austere clinker-bricked building surrounded by old trees and perfectly tended hedges.

Crematorium manager Erik Heuberger is standing at the door waiting to greet the group on its arrival. The perma-tanned man with red-rimmed spectacles greets each pensioner with a firm handshake.

'It's important for me that you all see that we are not simply a cremation facility but a place that works with people,' he says.

The crematorium's interior is bright with a multi-coloured carpet and walls adorned with paintings of water lilies and other abstract images. 'We have nothing like this in Germany,' says Friedrich.

Heuberger leads the group into the chapel area where he answers any questions the pensioners might have. One 66-year-old man with a grey beard wants to know if it is possible to bring the ashes back into Germany. Heuberger explains that the urn has to remain in Holland for at least 30 days but after that relatives are free to do what they want with a deceased's ashes.

Others want to know whether German customs officers might confiscate the ashes thinking they are drugs but Heuberger reassures them that this wouldn't be a problem.

Cremations in Holland cost only a fraction of what they do in Germany but Friedrich believes there is another equally important reason for choosing the Netherlands over his native country for the service.

'The Dutch have another way of thinking,' he explains. 'On the one hand they are more relaxed and less bureaucratic while at the same time they display a greater piety than we do.'

For example, bodies are cremated on the day they arrive in a Dutch crematorium while in Germany the process could last several days. Money can also be saved by the fact that the Dutch don't generally believe in having expensive floral wreaths and the whole service has a more spartan feel.

Friedrich organizes the transportation of the body to Holland while the pensioners can select what type of urn they want in advance. 'This one is particularly nice,' says Niesel during his visit to the crematorium's urn room. 'I could imagine myself feeling right at home in it,' he jokes.

The group stops for some coffee and cake before Heuberger continues the tour with a visit to the ovens. 'I never imagined the place would be so beautiful,' says one 66-year-old who doesn't want to be named. 'It's just a pity that I won't see anything else once I'm dead.'

Getting cremated in the Netherlands also allows Germans avoid their country's strict laws regarding the dispersal of ashes. 'My wife and I decided a long time ago that we were going to ignore German law,' says the man. 'We have enjoyed so many wonderful hours in our garden and that is where we want to be buried.'

At the ovens, Niesel wants to know is it really possible for all the ashes from a person's cremated body to fit into such a small urn. Friedrich replies by pointing out the human body is made up of 70-per-cent water.

Half an hour later and the group is on its way back to Germany with the general feeling being that the trip was worthwhile. 'My impression is that it was exceptionally positive,' says Kulozik. 'A brochure would never have been able to explain things in this way.'




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