Death is the one single certainty in life, and one that nobody can escape. And where nurses, local institutions and family members used to handle the necessary arrangements, we now face a globalised multi-faceted industry in constant evolution, with a turnover estimated to be €350 million per year in Belgium alone. Fact of the matter is, death has become big business, one with four distinct and compulsory rites of passage.

Photography Merel ‘t Hart

01. A shell for eternity

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What is one to do when the family business one has been running for the past century is failing? Make the best of the existing infrastructure and branch out. That’s what the Baeten’s opted for when facing the demise of their family’s woodworks factory – created in 1881, specialising in furniture and grand-father clocks. About 10 years ago, and fol- lowing a drastic decline in sales, they considered different options, settling for coffins, a product that would never run out of demand. The production of coffins in Belgium was initially handled by the town administrations and independent manufacturers but has since become industrialised with three main factories now running the show: Demaco, Funico and Baeten’s Aninco. Employing 35 full-time workers, Aninco produces 100 coffins a day in its 11,000 square meter Limburg-based factory and supplies undertakers throughout the country and in parts of Holland. Offering about 60 to 70 different models in a variety of up to 10 colours, the options are almost endless. Your typical solid wood coffin takes about two hours for production, weighs between 40 and 50 kilograms, and is made of either oak, ayous or tulipwood. Design-wise, traditional coffins are still very popular, although there is a newfound interest in the minimal design and straight lines. As for prices, they vary between 500 euros for the basic models and 5,000 euros for some specific high-end caskets, imported from Italy. A cheaper and lighter alternative (20kg), made of Medium-Density Fibreboard is usually favoured for cremations, the think- ing being that if it is bound to be burned, why spend massive amounts on it? Although, as Jeroen notes, it’s almost absurd considering that whether the coffin is buried or cremated, no one will really get to notice or enjoy the difference.

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02. Funeral parlour

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In a world defined by its uncertainties (the only constants being death and taxes), accountants and undertakers reign supreme. “Hired to face death for us” – to quote Six Feet Under, the TV show that widely popularised this obscure profession – undertakers will tackle all those subtle tasks, from contacting the administration, printing the announcements, housing and embalming a corpse to providing a hearse (the only legal way to transport a dead body), making the necessary arrangements for an eventual repatriation and scheduling and organising the funeral. This sector started appearing under the form of small-scale businesses in the late 30s, flourishing into an industry that now counts between 650 and 700 funeral homes throughout the country. Most independent outfits are now threatened by wider group acquisitions and Johan Dexters, who presides the Belgian federation of undertakers (Funebra), predicts that in less than a decade, all the small businesses will have disappeared. In 2005, the Sophia group sold all its Belgian acquisitions to Dela, a Dutch insurance group, which now owns 80 funeral homes and four crematoria, leaving it with a 12 percent share of the Belgian market. This obviously constitutes a danger in terms of prices, which vary according to parlours and regions, known to be lower in Wallonia than Flanders. Certain entities offer packaged formulas; others work with customised rates. A new trend that has emerged concerns people who are isolated or have lost contact with their families, and wish to pre-organise their funeral. We all try to avoid the thought of death, yet those working in the sector are reminded of it every single passing second. In the undertakers’ case, the quality of the family will obviously impact the way they react to this situation. “It’s a job like another,” says Johan, who organises about 220 funeral services per year at his Peeraer-Dexters home, a third of which occur between the months of January and March. “It all depends on the client. It’s hard to feel any compassion for a family that is constantly fighting about inheritance and what not. My work just becomes very mechanical, going through motions. If the family shares true pain, then it inevitably rubs off on you. It’s true that we’re always working in a context of grief but to be honest, we also laugh a lot. I’ve discovered that joy and pain are closely linked. People try to reminisce the good times, it’s the only way to cope with the tension and sadness.” There is no obligation to go through funeral homes. That said, dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard enough to handle, making the average 3,500 euros cost of a funeral far from a luxury.

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03. Ashes to ashes

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While most European countries started building their crematoria in the 19th century, Belgium had to wait until 1904 for its first facility in Uccle/ Ukkel. The church was influential at the time and fiercely opposed to this method. Towards 1963 a first step was made by not objecting to cremation and it wasn’t until 1971 that the country passed its first legislation, finally accepting cremation as a valid alternative to burial. In 2001, a law states that relatives are allowed to have the possession of the remains and bring the urn back home. If that is not the wish, the remains can be placed in a columbarium (a public cinerary urn storage space), buried in a traditional tomb, or scattered in a specific zone of the crematorium estate. Scattering cremated ashes in the wild is currently illegal, yet it is the type of offence that is very hard to control. In 1986, about 20 percent of the deceased in Belgium were cremated. That figure has since ascended to 50 percent. It’s at its lowest in Wallonia (27 percent) and highest in Brussels (65 percent), with Flanders enjoying a middle ground (53 percent). There are currently 12 crematoria in Belgium, with new projects on the way, such as the recently operational Sint-Niklaas facility and the upcoming one in Holsbeek. To Xavier Godard, director of the Uccle/Ukkel crematorium, one can’t justify cremation’s surge of popularity by financial motives only, as he maintains that this method is not systematically cheaper. “There are many reasons, one of which was that a cremation ceremony didn’t have to pass by the church and could be performed in a simple and secular way. The burst of modern families, whose members are often spread across the world, is also an important factor. It becomes difficult choosing one single place where the deceased would remain. Another reason might be that the deceased would not want to burden its relatives with the maintenance of their tomb. There are also spiritual and personal preferences, many people wanting to be purified by fire.” The next step might be resomation, a new method that dissolves bodies in a chemical caustic solution, reducing costs and impact on the environment. The process has been approved in six states of the US, with Belgium making headlines this past summer, when talk of legalising the controversial method surfaced.

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04. Six feet under

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With the rise of cremation, cemeteries are less in demand. If that shift in trend conveniently minimises the growing issue caused by the lack of burial space, the disappearance of funerary art and monuments – for which people used to pay considerable amounts for and have become a part of our cultural heritage – should be mourned. Now that we have been granted the possibility to bring back the remains of our cherished ones home, it’s almost as though we are reverting to the ancient traditions of in-house mausoleums, or a family graveyard in the garden. With monument production on the decline, specialised marble smiths have become a dying breed, with those still around having branched out in the manufacturing of cremation urns. Many cities face serious space shortages and one can’t help but wonder what will happen when all the cemeteries are full. So far this scenario hasn’t yet occurred in Belgium, where they are state run, meaning ours is one of the few European countries where you can still be buried for free – for a maximum period of 10 years. Beyond that, you either had to renew the “lease” by paying for it, or, as used to be the case, the “expelled” coffins were placed in mass graves. These days they are reburied six meters under the ground. Spaces are not the only elements being recycled. Monuments that are deemed valuable and which are not claimed by the relatives become state property and the counsel has the right to sell them to other families. As for those who chose to “buy” a space, it will be allocated for a certain time but here again, there is no guarantee that the tomb will remain there for eternity. The Laeken cemetery is one of the oldest in Belgium and famed for the beauty of its monuments, which earned it the nickname of “the little Père Lachaise”. Other notable graveyards include the 18-acre park of Schoonselhof or the beautiful and intimate setting of Lasne’s cemetery.

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