What is the Undertaker's Lifestyle

SZ: Mister Burke, are you still in the funeral business?

Burke: Of course. I am the last to look at you and the first to straighten you up. My daughter and my son are trained undertakers, they run our company.

SZ: What was it that fascinated you about surrounding yourself with corpses every day?

Burke: I wanted to be a surgeon as a child. One day when my mother saw me sniping on a dead cat, she said: Solomon, put the cat back in the box and bury it. I said to myself, hello, this is how it can work.

SZ: Was that decided so early?

Burke: Well, my uncles were undertakers. They were always well dressed and I emulated them. That brought me closer to your trade - after all, it's a helping profession. The people who have lost someone need someone who can guide them through that experience. You forget your new car, you may forget your new house, but you never forget moments of goodbye. They belong to the cycle of life. Just as the doctor brings the baby into the world, the undertaker picks up people again.

SZ: Before you trained as a mortician, you celebrated success as a pop star.

Burke: I have been preaching since I was six, speaking on the radio as Bishop of my 60,000-strong Temple Of Solomon Church. I was called "The Wonder Boy Preacher". When I was twenty I thought: God gave you this voice. So why not sing rhythm'n 'blues too? "You can run but you can't hide" was the name of my first single - an instant hit. Nevertheless, I looked around for a crisis-proof job. I already had half a dozen children to feed. What could be more natural than to continue the family tradition?

SZ: Despite hits like "Cry to me" or "Everybody needs somebody", you couldn't make a living from your performances?

Burke: Today's pop stars make millions, I had to fight for every penny from my songs. Despite my title "King of Soul", it took hard work to pay my bills. With snow shovels. My popcorn shipment. Or a drugstore. But when a business didn't work, God always opened up a new source of income for me. It was the same with "Don't give up on me", my comeback record in 2002.

SZ: As a soul singer, you are one of the legends. What are your qualities as an undertaker?

Burke: The most important thing is the dignity of loved ones. Together with my son and daughter, I try to make them feel part of our family. There is no time in life when that is more important: accompanying people in their pain.

SZ: A big debate about artificial life extension is raging right now in the USA. What do you make of it?

Burke: Where there is life there is hope. We must never give up on ourselves or on someone we love. Only God has the answer as to when, where and how we will resign. But if he has given us the technology and the knowledge to lengthen the heartbeat, then we should use it.

SZ: It is said that you used to regularly park your tour bus at morgues to chat with colleagues ...

SZ: Well that's true. We often stopped for a little chat. I like to look into someone else's coffin. Just like other people stop for a nice cup of coffee or beer. For me this is part of life.

SZ: Is it okay to laugh at a funeral?

Burke: Absolutely. In fact, this is the best time to laugh. You should remember the good and funny experiences. That gives strength to endure death. On such occasions, I like to reveal small, funny family secrets: this enables the survivors to pass these stories on. A shame when pastors can't be comedians too. The relatives deserve to laugh too.

SZ: Isn't your job tough emotional work?

Burke: Sure, but you are familiar with death at some point. The physical work is often much more difficult: Sometimes I had to carry a corpulent deceased down the stairs and prayed to God: Please let me take the next twenty steps!

SZ: Do you believe that the spirits of the dead are still with us?

Burke: I haven't seen anyone come back yet, haven't received a postcard or email. If God calls you, that's it. Out. Point. But you have to live first. Live a good life.

SZ: Do you believe in hell too?

Burke: The way your life is lived now, so will it go on. And if you haven't done your work on earth, you come to a hot place. Without air conditioning. And without chicken and lemonade.

SZ: You're not exactly known for an ascetic lifestyle.

Burke: God gave us this world. He wants us to smell the roses, sip the coffee, eat the cookies before it's too late.

SZ: How can we prepare for death?

Burke: Look, I have 21 children and 84 grandchildren. They are enough to guarantee tragedy. I know jealousy, distrust, waiting in vain for a call from the person you love. If you endured this pain, then you know that other people experience the same thing all the time. That makes you forgiving. And so life suddenly becomes more valuable.

SZ: They allegedly had to fear for their lives a couple of times on stage ...

Burke: In the 1960s, I was mistakenly booked into white clubs because of my country hits. Once the promoter persuaded me to bandage my face. He had announced me as a white singer and wanted to prevent possible excesses by the audience. Another time the Ku Klux Klan booked me for their party. Both sides were equally flabbergasted at the meeting. My band wanted to pull the leash immediately.

SZ: And you weren't scared to death?

Burke: Yes, of course. But before that, I can still get the best out of every second of my life. Be grateful for every breath you take. And sing. That's how I finally saved the situation and got the Klan guys dancing.