Life

10 Questions for a Funeral Director, About Making a Living from Death

"I rent a parking spot for the hearse, because having it in my driveway would look weird."
October 28, 2020, 2:59pm
Merel Westermann at the Zorgvlied cemetery in Amsterdam
Merel at the Zorgvlied cemetery in Amsterdam. All photos by the author. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

You can make a pretty good living working in death. The average funeral in the Netherlands costs about €7,500; of that, the undertaker or funeral director – the terms are synonymous – pockets €1,500.

If that’s not enough to make you consider getting into the funeral industry, consider this: you do not need a specific degree to become an undertaker in the Netherlands or the UK. Anyone can call themselves a funeral planner or director, and it seems that many already are: the number of funeral-related businesses in the Netherlands nearly doubled in the last decade, from 1,000 in 2007 to 1,900 in early 2018.

Though nearly all funeral professionals refuse to disclose their price list or answer questions about rates, independent funeral director Merel Westermann was happy to enlighten us. I talked shop with the 52-year-old at the Zorgvlied cemetery in Amsterdam.

Merel the funeral director

Merel runs her own business.

VICE: Hi Merel, how did you decide to enter the funeral business?
Merel Westermann: About 17 years ago, my best friend died. His funeral was standard: three speakers, three songs, with coffee and cake afterwards. It didn’t feel special enough. At that time, I worked in a midwifery practice. I quit that job and decided to help families who had lost someone, instead of families who had recently welcomed a baby.

What does your job entail?
It’s comparable to planning a wedding. I take care of everything surrounding the funeral: cards to send to loved ones, placing an ad in the paper, the location, catering, making the body presentable, the service, music and so on. Because I’m there, the family doesn’t have to deal with any of it. I also receive invoices on their behalf. Ultimately, the family only receives one final invoice, adding up all of the other expenses, plus my fee. That invoice usually ends up being between €2,500 and €8,000.

What do you charge?
I have an all-inclusive rate, which covers everything I do. For a job that takes me between 18 and 25 hours, it’s €1,850 before taxes. If it’s a very small service, I charge half, and if the funeral is very lavish, I charge more. In an average year, I work with 50 to 60 families, so that’s about one family a week.

€7,400 before taxes – that’s a decent monthly paycheque.
Yes, it is. But I do pay a lot of taxes. I also hire freelancers to take on a job about once a month. Those freelancers receive between €1,000 and €1,100 out of my €1,850 fee. The remainder of the fee goes to me, so I still end up with a decent amount, though I also have expenses. When all is said and done, I make between €2,500 and €3,000 a month.

What are the expenses?
I spend €350 a month on my office space. I also have a car and my own hearse: a 1977 Mercedes. Maintenance on that alone is about €100 a month, but I also rent it out regularly. I rent a parking spot for the hearse, because having it in my driveway would look a little weird. The parking spot is €650 a month. I also have my equipment for keeping the bodies cool and making them presentable for the funeral, information materials and a trade magazine subscription. I’ve also invested in condolence books, letter paper and a nice website that has to be updated every now and then.

Merel the funeral director

How do your clients find you?
I get a lot of work through people who have been to one of the funerals I’ve planned, and I have many friends and acquaintances, which also leads to jobs.

Do you charge a different rate for a friend’s funeral?
Yes, I give people I know personally a 50 percent discount. In those instances, I also spend a lot more time on the job. And when people are really strapped for cash, I only charge them half my usual fee.

Do you negotiate better deals with catering companies for people who can’t spend as much?
No, but I can help them look for cheaper options. I recently planned a service in an open field, for people who couldn’t afford to spend a lot. We put up a big tent and the guests sat on bales of hay. Both the cakes and the casket were homemade – it cost next to nothing, but was very special nonetheless.

How do you feel about making money by dealing with the dead?
I deal with families, not so much with dead bodies. And again: if people really don’t have a lot to spend, I’m happy to charge less. I accompany people, I don’t take advantage. Charging money for this type of service is normal.

Do you have any plans for your own funeral?
I don’t need a service in a funeral parlour. I’d love to be somewhere outside, with a fire pit. I also don’t want a casket, I’d much rather be wrapped in cloth. I’m into the idea of a hippie-ish service. But really, I think the funeral is for the people who are left behind, so I’ll let my friends and family decide on all of it. I work with a bunch of freelancers, so that’s helpful; they’ll be able to plan my service.

Thank you, Merel.