Funeral homes are getting ready to deal with more infectious bodies this winter as Germany has become a COVID-19 hotspot. They require more time and money for safety measures — the cost of which is passed on to relatives. But the true cost for friends and family lies elsewhere.
ROSENHEIM — In a storeroom in Rosenheim, Michael Hartl's stockpile of supplies is carefully stacked: he has ordered 75 white plastic body bags and plenty of disinfectant, gloves and protective clothing for himself and his colleagues. In the COVID-19 hotspot of Upper Bavaria, the undertaker is preparing for what may come his way over the next few days, when the fourth wave washes up on his doorstep.
With its low vaccination rate, Germany has become one of the worst-hit COVID hotspots in the world. Infection rates are rising day by day, and in the south and east of the country, they are reaching previously unimaginable heights. In one or two weeks, this new wave of infections will hit the hospitals and intensive care wards. Then a few days later, it will inevitably reach the funeral homes. They fear the number of deaths will be high.
"Given current infection rates, we expect the number of COVID-19 patients to rise over the coming days and weeks," says Stephan Neuser, general secretary of the Federal Association of German Funeral Directors.
He says many funeral homes — there are around 5,500 in Germany — have stocked up on protective gear and adjusted their plans. Even under normal circumstances, November marks the start of the season when they see a lot of deaths. But given the direction the pandemic is taking, Neuser fears that this winter will bring particular challenges for the sector. "Undertakers are preparing to deal with rising numbers of infectious bodies."
Hartl has often heard people say there'll always be demand in his line of business. People usually say it with a wry smile, but he finds it hard to laugh about. Hartl, 38, is a second-generation undertaker, running a large funeral home in Rosenheim, with five branches and 62 employees. The city and its surrounding areas have been a hotspot since the start of the pandemic. Hartl knows what's coming in this fourth wave. He's already lived through it once.
She showed me the true impact of the pandemic
He was one of the first undertakers in Germany to deal with a death from the new virus. "It was in March 2020, my first COVID-19 case," he says. The deceased was an elderly man from Rosenheim who had been admitted to hospital two weeks earlier and died there, alone, with his relatives not allowed to visit. "I then had to explain to his widow that she wasn't allowed to see her husband's body before it was cremated," says Hartl. He will never forget what she said to him. "She showed me the true impact of the pandemic," he says. "She said, 'We were married for 50 years. I haven't seen him for two weeks, and now I will only see him again as an urn in a cemetery.'"
In April 2020, during the first wave, Hartl dealt with 70% more deaths than that same month in previous years. More than 60% of the deceased he received had died from COVID-19 infections. From early morning until late in the evening, bereaved relatives were calling him. In between, Hartl called up other undertakers to see if anyone had spare body bags. Or gloves or protective clothing — they were running short on everything. But the most important thing they had to do without was what Hartl sees as the heart of his profession: personal contact with people, offering condolences, helping them say their goodbyes. "We had to let that fall by the wayside," says Hartl.
Now that the lonely deaths are starting up again, Hartl knows better how to deal with these cases. He often doesn't find out that the body is infected until he arrives and sees the death certificate. Then he begins a process that has become a deeply sad routine for him and his colleagues, with none of the usual markers of a dignified and reverent final journey. The undertakers have to disinfect the body before moving it. Then they wrap it in disinfected cotton cloths, zip it into a body bag and take it away.
After that point, at least in Bavaria, no more human contact with the body is allowed. No careful arranging and dressing, no open casket – "that is all explicitly forbidden", says Hartl. That is the worst part, he says: "For me, saying goodbye at the coffin is the most important part of a funeral." He says it helps mourners, especially children, to grasp the reality of death. But if a body is infected with COVID-19, it is placed in the coffin in its body bag and buried that way, or – more often – cremated.
"Wear face mask!" sign in Alexanderplatz in Berlin
Not good for business
Hartl has to protect his employees. Even contact with the relatives of a person who has died of COVID-19 can pose a risk. He says there was one case where relatives came to a meeting at Hartl's office despite knowing that they were positive. "Luckily none of us got infected. But in those cases, employees have to go into quarantine." The business currently has two positive cases among its staff, and a third person is self-isolating due to being in contact with a COVID-positive relative. Hartl has divided his employees into separate teams so that they can continue to run the business if there is an infection.
Death doesn't mean a body stops being infectious
"Death doesn't mean a body stops being infectious," explains Neuser, which is why preparing these bodies is such a laborious process. He says that moving the body and placing it in the coffin can dislodge breath from the lungs, which can infect funeral home workers — though few cases have been reported. More than 98,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Germany, but the number of undertakers who have been infected by a dead body is in the single figures, says Neuser. He says this means the precautionary measures are working, although they come with added costs, both in terms of equipment and time. That is why the Association of Funeral Directors is recommending undertakers to add a "corona premium" of 100-120 Euros for COVID-related deaths.
In the Rosenheim area, there have already been more than 650 deaths from COVID. Hartl says that some people think the pandemic has been good for his business. But while he has dealt with more deaths over the past year than in previous years, his turnover has been lower. With funerals canceled, delayed or restricted to close family, many of his services haven't been required. From a personal perspective, he finds that sad, but from a commercial one, he can live with it. "This isn't a situation where you want to make a profit."