German state prosecutors are investigating nine crematorium workers and an accomplice who are suspected of having routinely sold off gold tooth fillings sifted from the ashes of hundreds of corpses.
The nine stokers employed at Hamburg's Oejendorf Cemetery crematorium have all been suspended from duty while prosecutors conduct their investigation.
The probe follows a police raid on their homes in late August which netted €146,000 (£122,000) in unaccounted cash.
“We suspect the crematorium employees of having sold the gold fillings of the deceased over a period of several years,” Wilhelm Mollers, Hamburg's chief state prosecutor told the city's Abendblatt newspaper.
He said that the stokers appeared to have made searching the ashes for “metal leftovers” a routine operation and that they were suspected of pocketing their findings and selling them on to a third party. A 10th man, also being investigated, was a dealer in coins and is believed to be their accomplice.
The case has shocked Germany's respected world of undertakers, cemetery managers and crematoria operators, which prides itself on its discretion and respect for the dead.
“We are shaken and saddened,” said Rainer Wirz, who is in charge of Hamburg's cemeteries and crematoria. “Our staff are duty-bound to treat the deceased with dignity and respect. This applies to ashes as well,” he insisted.
However, other reports have suggested that the crematorium staff did not just search ashes for gold fillings. One unnamed former crematorium worker told Hamburg's Morgenpost newspaper that staff plundered corpses for every bit of jewellry on them before they were cremated.
He said they also stripped the coffins of their handles and sold them off. Claiming that in many German crematoria staff did the same, he told the newspaper that the Hamburg crematorium ringleader “pockets the gold and goes skiing in Davos every year on the profits”.
Hamburg's crematoria, along with many others across Germany, insist that for many years, they have operated a policy under which all the valuable remains of the deceased are collected after cremation, weighed and then sold off. The profits are then given to charity.