The small town of Haan, Germany is more than 4,000 miles (a 12-hour plane ride) away from Cleveland. But, that long distance didn’t stop Maike Piepenstock (m-EYE-kah pip-IN-stock) from journeying here to fulfill her career and travel desires.
Busch Funeral Home welcomed Piepenstock in January for an internship-style opportunity. She is already a licensed funeral director, but the laws in Germany require her to study abroad in order to earn an embalming license.
“Having Maike part of our staff has been wonderful,” Jim Busch, president and funeral director of Busch Funeral Home said. “When I first learned of the opportunity, I thought it would be a tremendous experience for her and us. She has stepped in and helped with whatever she has been asked. Our staff is appreciative having someone here that has a very different viewpoint of the processes we experience.”
Germany, like many other parts of the world, does not commonly embalm their deceased. In fact, prior to the Civil War, burials in the U.S. didn’t use chemicals. However, when a body needs to travel outside of the country, embalming is needed. Piepenstock explained that only a select few funeral directors have their embalming license.
“I enjoy seeing the differences between here and back in Germany,” Piepenstock explained. “Burials in Germany are green, and the gravesites are just rented. So, after an average of 30 years, the wooden casket and body are totally decomposed. The family then has the option to re-rent the site and bury another person when the time comes.”
Prior to her travels, Piepenstock spent three years as an apprentice at her family-owned funeral home in Haan. She completed her studies at the country’s only school where students learn to immediately bury the deceased at a cemetery, so students have a more interactive, hands-on burial experience.
Comparing Cleveland to Haan, Germany
Piepenstock came to Cleveland in August 2015 to study for one semester at Lorain County Community College. She has been gaining hands-on experience at Busch since January 2016.
“Everything here in Cleveland is so different than in Germany,” Piepenstock said. “I love the Theater District and all of the old buildings downtown. Everyone seems so welcoming and friendly.”
In addition to the architectural and cultural difference between Cleveland and Haan, Piepenstock also commented on the differences in funeral processes. She explained that more than 50 percent of individuals choose cremation in Germany, and the percentages are even higher in urban areas, nearing an average of 70 percent or more. Piepenstock also explained that funeral services typically begin at the cemetery and are followed by a small family gathering in a traditional viewing room.
Cremations are also regulated differently in Germany. Funeral homes are not permitted to perform an on-site cremation, which means that all individuals must be transferred to a third-party provider. Also, the process is typically much longer because the body must be transferred off-site. Working at Busch, Piepenstock has the opportunity to learn how a family-owned on-site crematory operates and cares for its deceased. Having the crematory on-site, means families can trust that their loved one never leaves Busch’s care, which guarantees cremains will not be mixed up.
“Being at a funeral home that has its own crematory seems more and more attractive to me,” Piepenstock said. “I do see the great advantages in being able to make schedules the way you really need it instead of waiting to call a third party. By scheduling everything first hand, it’s easier to perform a witnessed cremation, so the family can be there when the process is happening.”
Applying Lessons Learned
Both Busch and Piepenstock’s business is a fourth-generation family-owned funeral homes. This has helped her quickly adapt to the family environment of the business.
After Piepenstock leaves in June, she plans to bring home the lessons she has learned from Busch. Since Piepenstock’s family-run funeral home is much smaller, she mentioned that at Busch, documents and files are more organized, actions are scheduled and there is a great team to work alongside.
“I’ve really adjusted well here,” Piepenstock said. “My goal is to meet as many people as I can and bring home friendships that last longer than just this year. I love seeing the differences in this country, and I think I’ve built some long-lasting friendships here.”
Other than her professional plans, Piepenstock will also fit in some traveling before heading back to Germany. In June, she plans to visit several cities from Seattle to San Diego to Maui to Washington D.C.