Undertaker, bereavement expert, friend

Obituary: Fritz Roth 1.8.1949 – 13.12.2012 

Monika Müller and Lukas Radbruch, members of the International Working Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement, pay tribute to Fritz Roth, one of the pioneer bereavement experts in Germany and an inspirational friend.

Fritz Roth in August 2012

Fritz Roth in August 2012

How do you become an undertaker? Fritz Roth definitely was not the typical undertaker, and he liked to tell how he came into this vocation. Following his studies in economics he worked as a manager in a big energy company, before he and his wife, Inge, took over the funeral home, Pütz, in Bergisch-Gladbach. This probably was due more to an entrepreneurial urge to lead and design his own business. However, after training in grief therapy with Jorgos Canacakis this changed, and a different way of approaching death and bereavement in society became his mission.

This is how we came to know him: one of us (Lukas) in the television studio for a small programme to which we had both been invited as experts and where we supported each other in our statements. The other, (Monika) thinking timidly about the first northrhine-westfalian bereavement conference, which Fritz Roth heartily encouraged and offered to provide all technical and financial support.

We worked together in the International Working Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement (IWG), where Fritz Roth had been a board member since 2010. We met in Tucson, Sao Paulo and Cape Cod. In the years 2009 and 2010 we planned together the IWG conference, which was held in May 2010 in Bergisch Gladbach. It was an intense period of time, and Fritz Roth managed again and again to surprise us with his spontaneity, his generosity, his thoroughness and, most of all, with his joy of life and his enthusiasm. It was to his merit, that the congress was such a success.

Fritz Roth always opened new paths for the approach to bereavement and death. He established the first private cemetery in Germany, and his bereavement academy and the Villa Kunterbunt for grieving children were famous far beyond the borders of Bergisch Gladbach. For his exhibition, ‘A suitcase for the last journey’, he sent an empty suitcase to a hundred people and asked them to fill it with whatever they would like to take with them on the journey out of life. The exhibition and the book are an impressive testimony about reflection on the essential and the diversity of attitudes.

And everybody who visited Roth was sent on the ’path of longing’. For this path he had converted the whole cellar of the funeral home, so that the way through the cellar became a tangible experience, how death and grief surge down on man and make him feel emotions, seek and find meaning. We do not know how many times Fritz Roth explained the path of longing as a tour guide, but each time it seemed to be as compassionate as the first time.

Whether in the television studio, in a lecture or in personal conversation, he was loud, clear, sometimes provocative, but always filled with deep compassion. In his company a vibrant attitude towards death and bereavement seemed natural. After only a few minutes you wished that this man would be your friend, and shortly thereafter he made you feel you were that friend.

Fritz Roth died last Thursday, 13 December, from progressive cancer of the liver. We had visited him in August –  drinking coffee, shooting a title photo for our journal ‘LEIDfaden’, walking through his cemetery. We could only admire how he could look death into the eye full of peace and gentleness, and at the same time bubbling over with ideas, hopes, wit and plans for the future. He was a great man, and we are happy to have had him as a friend at our side. There he will remain.

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