Poland's NecroExpo-The 'Grim Reaper' Means Business

by Thilaka Ravi on  June 25, 2009 at 3:40 PM Lifestyle News
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Poland's annual NecroExpo offers the best pick in funeral wear and coffins if you're a trend-conscious undertaker looking for the latest in funeral-wear and coffins, or simply hunting for a hearse.
 Poland's NecroExpo-The 'Grim Reaper' Means Business
Poland's NecroExpo-The 'Grim Reaper' Means Business

The three-day event, which just wrapped its third edition in the southern town of Kielce, is a magnet in a business where the Grim Reaper is as much about rewards as souls.

Like any trade fair, NecroExpo has its share of scantily-clad hostesses -- but in this case they pitch high-end Italian hearses or kitsch white coffins lined with lace.

At one stand, exhibitor Grzegorz Szymanski showed off swish ensembles including ceremonial undertakers' outfits.

"Contrary to what people think, really dark colours don't dominate. Only 10 percent of what we sell is black. The rest are in greys, graphite, and so on," Szymanski told AFP.

"There's no rule saying it has to be black. Black's out," he said.

Szymanski also produces coffin-wear to make corpses look their best.

"There really isn't much difference between suits for the deceased and those for the living," he said, fingering the lapel of a smart three-piece.

"And for the ladies, it can't just be any old thing. It has to be tiptop," he added, pointing out a retro-style black and white dress.

Trends are equally marked in the coffin business, said Bartlomiej Lindner, whose family firm is Poland's largest producer, turning out 132,000 caskets a year.

"It all depends on the season. In the spring, for example, we sell many more clear colours," he said.

Lindner, whose firm exports to the German-speaking world, explained that foreign markets have quirks.

"For example, you can't sell this in France or Britain," he said, tapping a rectangular pine coffin which is the norm in Germany.

"In the trade we nickname this the 'Dracula'," he added, pointing to a elongated hexagonal shaped casket, favored in Poland, Britain and France.

Coffins range from 35 euros (50 dollars) for what the company calls, discreetly, its "Model S" -- for "social welfare" -- to 1,500 euros (2,100 dollars) for a top-of-the-range carved casket.

"Right now, given the crisis, we're probably selling more of the cheaper models. But we still sell high-end ones. It all depends on the customer's budget," said Lindner.

More than 90 percent of Poland's 38 million inhabitants are professed Roman Catholics.

While the Church has dropped old objections to cremation, habits die hard with many priests. Burials remain the norm: there are around 300,000 a year, compared to 25,000 cremations.

"The market's very competitive," said Karol Czartoryski, 24, of a family-run funeral supplies wholesaler's. "I was born into this business. I knew from the start that I wanted to do this," he added.

Poland is home to around 2,000 undertakers' firms, although some are fly-by-night outfits. Only 300 are in the national undertakers' association, which distances itself from the cowboys.

The sector's reputation was dented by the gruesome 2002 "Cash-for-Corpses" scandal, where undertakers bribed medical staff to get tip-offs about deaths, and two ambulance drivers were later convicted of finishing off patients to earn extra cash.

Poland is unusual in Europe in that the state helps with funeral costs -- the deceased's family gets a social security payout of 6,000 zlotys (1,300 euros, 1,870 dollars).

"With that kind of money, you can have a funeral with a Mercedes," said Witold Skrzydlewski, head of the undertakers' association.

His firm conducts up to 600 funerals per month, making it Poland's largest.

"Personally I don't like cremations. It's partly moral. But also because they don't make business sense. People cut corners, they don't buy flowers and sometimes don't bother with an urn but just scatter the ashes," he said.

Cremation costs around 1,500 zlotys and burial, around 2,500 zlotys, he said.

While most of NecroExpo's exhibitors are Polish, it also draws foreign players.

"I wasn't intending to go into this business," said Michael Xu, whose China-based polyester flower firm is moving into wreathes. "But in Europe I've found many people love artificial flowers, especially in countries where the weather's too cold for fresh ones."

Customers also stray across sectors, said Tomasz Bialkowski, who imports used hearses, selling some 30 a year at around 15,000 euros each.

"We had a call from a Dutch bike dealer who wants to turn one into a cycle-transporter," he said.

Source: AFP

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