(Everything the Mortician Won't Tell You)

The only purpose of a casket is to provide dignity (and convenience) when moving a body prior to burial or cremation. No casket will preserve a body forever. Unfortunately, morticians prey on the public's fears of the unknown with such sales hype as the following (from a funeral home price list in Richmond, VA, and another in Springfield, MA):

"We offer many different styles and prices of caskets and an alternative container from which to select. Since many caskets that appear similar in appearance may differ greatly in quality and construction, we offer the following in order to assist you in making an informed decision.

PROTECTIVE: These caskets are designed by the manufacturer to resist the entrance of air, water and other outside elements. They may be constructed of varying gauges of steel, copper or bronze.

NON-PROTECTIVE: These caskets are not designed by the manufacturer to resist the entrance of air, water or other outside elements. They may be constructed of metal, hardwood, or wood products covered with fabric."

One is tempted to imagine a casket maker sitting down with the designers and saying, "Make sure these won't keep out air, water, or other elements."

The rubber gasket used to construct a "sealer" casket costs the industry $8. But that $8 gasket is likely to raise the cost of the casket by $800 or more! And what happens to a body in a "sealed" casket? Just about the same thing as in an "unsealed" casket, except that it's a different group of bacteria that do the work.

For many years, the industry practice was to wrap the cost of the funeral service into the sale price of caskets—with a mark-up of 300-500-700% or more. Caskets are still marked up many times the wholesale cost, but funeral services are now billed separately.

The average cost of a funeral in the U.S. ($4,500) is almost three times that in Great Britain ($1,650) and more than twice what it is in France ($2,200) or Australia ($2,100). Some of that difference can be attributed to the cost of the casket.

Why do Americans tend to spend so much on a casket? Well, you might want a grand display for a day or so. Some are even "more comfortable"—with an inner spring mattress and adjustable head-rest. More likely, however, low-cost caskets simply aren't on display. As one reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times found out when the funeral shopper she accompanied asked if there wasn't something less expensive than the $2,000+ casket on display: "They led us to a hall on the way to the boiler room." Another woman was taken to a basement full of cobwebs. And another was subjected to the icy sneer: "Oh ... you want the welfare casket?"

If you're curious about the wholesale cost of caskets, be sure to visit Fr. Henry Wasielewski's website.

What are the alternatives to an expensive casket?

Be prepared for some resentment from the mortician at losing a big slice of the funeral profit if you obtain a casket elsewhere—your right to do so is protected by federal law. There may be snide remarks about the "poor quality" of what you've purchased. If the bottom doesn't fallout, the "quality" of what you are about to bury in the ground or deliver to a crematory may be irrelevant. On the other hand, some of the hand-made or small-production caskets available may be far superior in quality to something from an automated souped-up assembly line.

Note: The funeral home may not add a "handling fee" if you order the casket on your own.

A few states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia—with strong funeral industry lobbies (and corrupt legislators?)—do not permit anyone other than a mortician to sell a casket or coffin. A few brave souls are trying to buck the funeral boards in those states. Or you could look for folks selling or building "hope chests"—a far better name anyway, if you ask me. There is no law in any state to keep you from using a "hope chest" to move a body!

Copyright © FAMSA~FCA 1996

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