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Zurich on lookout for cheap coffins

Citizens of Zurich are still provided with their own free coffin.

Zurich city officials are searching the world for a company to provide them with cheap coffins.

Unusually for Switzerland, Zurich still provides public funding so that its citizens can ‘enjoy’ free funerals.

“All persons registered on the residents’ list are entitled to a free burial if they die in the city,” funeral service director Sergio Gut told swissinfo, “We reckon on around 4,000 deaths in Zurich every year so we have to find a coffin builder who can meet that sort of demand.”

Death is big business in a city the size of Zurich and, under World Trade Organisation rules, the city has to put its contract for the supply of coffins out to public tender.

The WTO states that all public contracts worth more than SFr250,000 must be put to a general bid. With an estimated value of around SFr600,000, the Zurich coffin franchise is clearly covered by the rule.

Brazilian bid

“We’ve had dozens of offers from around the world,” Gut reveals. “We’ve even had one from Brazil! But we think it will boil down to around ten or so viable bids.”

Although the city is not allowed to rule out an offer based purely on the bidder’s location, Gut reckons that a European company is more likely to get the contract because of the costs involved in long-distance deliveries.

One company that will not be in the bidding this time around, though, is Egli – the Lucerne company which won the previous contract and which has been providing Zurich with its coffins for the past three years.

Barely covering costs

Egli’s promise to provide coffins at a price of just SFr165 each earned the city SFr200,000 in savings compared with its previous contract. But the suppliers claim it was a price at which they could barely cover their costs.

“We made no gains at all from our three years supplying the city of Zurich,” Rudolf Egli told swissinfo. “It’s just not possible to carry on squeezing the prices in this way. That’s why we’d rather leave it to the competition.”

Even if Zurich receives a rock bottom offer from abroad, Gut insists that the city will reserve the right to inspect the working conditions involved in the bid.

For some, though, the prospect of importing foreign coffins heralds a possible sinking of standards and a potential blow to Swiss industry.


Jean Murith is director of the Geneva funeral service, which provides state funerals for some 70 per cent of the city’s 3,200 annual deaths. He believes the WTO rules may lead to “excessive rationalisation”.

While welcoming the arrival of proper competition to prevent prices from spiralling, Murith told swissinfo that the awarding of coffin contracts to foreign suppliers could have “scandalous” repercussions.

“One large Italian town had a similar experience when it started to order its coffins from Romania,” Murith argues. “The town certainly made savings, but it also lost its workforce and its know-how.

“For me, it would be out of the question to see coffins being used in Switzerland with plastic handles that don’t stay on,” added Murith. “It’s just a question of decency.”

Ending free services

Franz Schrag, president of the Swiss association of funeral directors, believes that Zurich will eventually lower its funeral costs not by importing cheaper coffins but by reducing the number of free services.

“Across Switzerland as a whole, the cost of a cheap funeral can be estimated at about SFr1,800,” reckons Schrag. “But we often see that rising to around SFr15,000 or even SFr20,000, according to the wishes of the family.

“But we think that up to 95 per cent of the population have the means to pay for a funeral. In the current economic climate, is it really fair to offer free funerals for people who are leaving millions behind in inheritance?”

A few years ago, Bern made up its own mind on that one and ended the practice of free funerals for all. As with many other communities, the Swiss capital only provides financial assistance to those who really need it.

For now though, Zurich must carry on searching for those affordable coffins. The latest tender ends on January 27 with the city due to make its decision in mid March.

swissinfo, Ariane Gigon Bormann, translated by Mark Ledsom

The average cost of a “cheap” funeral in Switzerland is SFr1,800.
Zurich, Winterthur and Basel are the only major cities which offer all citizens free funeral services.
Geneva pays for around 70 per cent of the city’s funerals, while Bern only provides for those who cannot afford their own funeral.

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