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Facts about Caskets

What to Do when Someone Dies Part I

What to Do when Someone Dies Part II

What to Do when Someone Dies Part III

Clothes to Be Buried In

Facts about Purchasing Caskets

A Funeral Guide to Getting a Good Deal on your Casket

The topic of caskets is an uncomfortable one for many people and, accordingly, ignorance on the topic abounds among families who have recently lost a loved one and are suddenly thrust into making a quick decision that can cost as much as a new car or expensive piece of furniture. Caskets are, truly, the most expensive single part of most any funeral service, so we believe this article will be useful for anyone wanting to be in top negotiating position when it comes time to plan a funeral at a funeral home or cemetery. Here is our summary of what every family should know about caskets.

Where the Term Casket Comes From:

The history of caskets is rich and interesting, but we will save most of that discussion for another article. For our current purposes, we will simply focus on one important part of the story of how what we know as caskets came to be – the history of the term casket itself.

For much of the history of caskets, the burial receptacle were called simply coffins. That term has largely been relegated today to the sole purpose of describing where fictional vampires live. It is also still used in western movies and other artistic pieces set in a time when “coffin” was the standard term.

Alas, though, for most modern usage, the term casket has taken over almost entirely.

Casket, when used to describe a container in which a person's body is to be buried, is purely a creation of marketing needs. In about the middle of the 20th century, when “death care” became a full-fledge commercial industry in the United States (and other parts of the Western world) funeral homes and cemeteries run by a profit motive needed a means by which to convince their customers to invest in something more than the traditional wooden box that had served many families for ages. The traditional “coffin” was simply not profitable enough to sustain an entire industry.

So, the marketing minds of the death care business, found the perfect word to describe the elaborate, sophisticated, elegant containers that they wanted to build and sell instead: caskets.

They borrowed this word from the jewelry business. A jewelry casket, of course, is a small-but-elegant container meant to store and protect a family's precious jewels when they are not in use. And that's exactly the connotative image that funeral homes and cemeteries needed in order sell their own caskets. Families eagerly bought into this idea of, perhaps indefinitely, storing their own family's human-sized jewels in a special box, elaborately designed to appear as inviting and as comforting as possible. The new caskets have proved very popular over the years. So popular, in fact, that today (at least in the United States) jewelry makers have noticed that their own term now includes connotations of death. In fact, some in the jewelry business have mildly complained that the funeral homes of the world have, perhaps, hijacked the term. “We now offer jewelry cases or jewelry boxes,” one salesman recently conceded. “We can't really sell caskets anymore. You can get those big things down the street at the funeral home.”

Funeral Homes Won't Tell You All Your Casket Options:

Consumer advocates who help families get the best value from their funeral homes routinely caution customers of funeral homes and cemeteries to make sure they understand all of their options when it comes to buying a casket. These containers, as we say, can be the single most expensive part of any funeral and burial service, and the most expensive models generally have the largest percentage of profit. (A few fancy features can be added to a basic casket for a production cost of, say, a few hundred dollars, but the retail price can usually be increased by thousands.) So this is why sales people who work for funeral homes and cemeteries have extra incentive to dissuade their clients from even considering the purchase of one of the least expensive models.

Most medium-to-large size funeral homes and cemeteries have a special “casket showroom” in which the various models the business offers are on display for families to see. Consumers should understand that these rooms do not necessarily contain all of the casket models available for order. In fact, many establishments have only a picture of the lesser-priced models. (Cynics will say that's because, if the inexpensive caskets were on display, customers would be able to see firsthand that there is no real difference between them and the outrageously expensive models.) A few who have been privy to seminars and articles offering tips for casket sales people report that it is common for sales people to start in about the middle of the overall price range when showing customers a selection of caskets in a casket showroom. Marketing research reportedly indicates that, when a family is specifically introduced to three caskets, it almost always ends up choosing the middle priced of the trio, no matter what other caskets may be available (either in the showroom or in a picture catalog).

So, the important thing for families to remember is that their funeral director is not necessarily looking out for their best interests when the tour of a casket showroom begins. Families should never be bashful about asking to see all of the options that the establishment has available, and they should definitely never be afraid to order a casket from a book or website provided by the funeral home. The salesman will, of course, try to down play the caskets that are not present in the showroom, but that does not mean they are not perfect for the family's needs.

Also, of course, families should keep in mind that they are never obligated to buy a casket from the same business that is arranging the funeral and/or burial. Plenty of alternative retailers exist – especially online – and it is illegal for funeral homes and cemeteries to discourage you in any way from doing business with these establishments.

Caskets are Not Built, Necessarily, to Last:

It is important for consumers to realize that no casket, not even the most expensive, are designed to last indefinitely underground. Nor are they designed to protect a body from the elements that will inevitably protrude. Some families may mistakenly come to the opposite conclusion when they see marketing material for caskets that are made of very strong steel and even outfitted with sealing gaskets. Consumer experts point out that these features are all simply for peace of mind of those who may see the casket at a funeral. In truth, within a few years (or, in some warm climates even a few months) of burial, even the most expensive casket can be expected to be tattered, rusted and worn by the elements in the grave.

Since the 1980's it has been illegal under the United States Funeral Rule for a casket salesperson to state – or even imply – that a casket can protect and preserve a body indefinitely. The fact is, no one can reliably predict how long a body or a casket will remain intact after burial. But that has not stopped some sales people from choosing their words very carefully so as to never specifically promise that a body will remain preserved forever but to leave that impression in a customer's mind, nevertheless.

Caskets Are Not Required for Cremation:

Another important fact that a funeral home or cemetery staff member may not remember to mention to a family is this: caskets are not necessarily required for cremation. While most laws do require that a body be placed in some sort of container during cremation, there is nothing that makes a fancy cremation casket a mandatory purchase. Every establishment that offers cremation is required to offer simple, inexpensive card board boxes in which a cremation can take place. These boxes may appear to be undignified to many families, and these people often choose to conduct the cremation in a more elaborate casket - which would first be placed on display at a funeral service. But consumer advocates advice families to make sure such a decision is their choice and not improperly encouraged by a salesman who stands to make much more profit by selling a more expensive casket. It is important that families making this decision keep in mind that a cremation procedure itself is rarely witness by more than just the staff members of the crematory. Considering this, many families might end up considering it a waste to buy an expensive casket that simply be destroyed in the cremation fires.

Caskets Can be Rented:

Most funeral homes and others who offer cremations also offer casket rentals for those families who want to have a loved one cremated in a basic cardboard box but who want a much more dignified casket on display at a funeral. Consumer advocates encourage families to inquire about this rental service before agreeing to buy an expensive casket for a loved one who will be cremated. Though, in recent years, funeral homes have found a way to make renting a casket about as expensive as buying one, there are some cases in which rental can result in a savings of a few hundred dollars or more. It is definitely worth inquiring about, experts say.

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