An increasing number of immigrants want to be buried in the Netherlands instead of in the country of their forebears. However, the sober Dutch funeral, with its cup of coffee and slice of cake, is alien to them.
Dennis Friperson saw a gap in the market and started up a multicultural funeral home. His company is growing rapidly because, as he says, “I am very flexible, anything goes!”
Mr Friperson (37) just got back from a Ghanaian funeral service in Amsterdam. He describes how friends and relatives paid their final respects before the body was flown back to Ghana.
“As we drove up in the hearse, it was really busy at the church. Chaotic, exuberant and colourful. Even before the hearse had come to a full stop, eight or nine men started lifting out the coffin. I had agreed with the relatives that the coffin would remain closed, but then a cousin - who had already bade the deceased a very emotional farewell - came along and he wanted me to open the coffin.”
"At the end of the service we closed it again, but then, when we were on our way to the hearse, an aunt drove up, and we had to open the coffin once again. She cried and cried and cried! Only afterward did we leave for Schiphol Airport. When it was all over I thought to myself: I did it again!”
Friperson started out as a coffin-bearer at a Protestant funeral home ten years ago. He noticed that his employer took little interest in non-Dutch services. Eventually, his boss passed on all ‘coloured’ funeral services to Friperson, who is of mixed Surinamese/Tunisian descent.
In 2006 he decided to start his own company, Meersorgh, which specialises in multi-cultural funerals. His clientele is diverse, but most of them are immigrants. “In many immigrant cultures people prefer not to talk about death, which is why they often have no proper funeral insurance.”
The costs of a funeral, in particular when the body has to be flown back to the country of origin, can amount to as much as 7,000 euros. For those who cannot afford that, Friperson is the man to talk to. In marked contrast with the big insurance companies, he is always willing to negotiate. That flexibility is an important feature of his business:
“After they've paid, they always want a little extra: another drive past the home of the deceased, or a longer service than agreed. Any other organisation would say: that’s going to cost extra. But I know the community is very tight: everybody knows everybody else. If you make an issue of these additional requests they won’t come back. So I let it go: open the coffin one more time, ten minutes longer in an auditorium, another drive round the house. I am used to it now.”
According to Friperson, the younger generation no longer has strong ties with their parents homeland. They prefer to be buried in the Netherlands, but without coffee and cake. There are as many different wishes as there are different cultures; Hindus want to be cremated, Chinese want lavish celebrations, and Moroccans prefer austere funerals “without a coffin, so there’s not much money to be made there.”
Friperson’s company carries out between 300 and 400 funerals a year. “People call me on my mobile, even at night.”
The young entrepreneur says migrants could learn a few things from the Dutch. “In the down-to-earth Dutch culture death is not such a taboo; that’s why Dutch people are better prepared for their funerals.”
Speaking of which, what kind of funeral does Friperson envisage for himself?
“I have always said that when I go, it will have to be a Surinamese-style funeral! It all starts with music. We take our time to say goodbye, often with live music. The procession to the grave is really groovy. We dance with the coffin, we drink, laugh and sing. A tear and a smile are close neighbours.”