Coffin shopping: Dying for a good deal?

When I was in high school, I took a class titled "Death and Dying." In addition to learning about the grieving process and reading afterlife narratives, my class studied the ins and outs of the funeral industry. We inspected coffins, read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, hung out in graveyards, and wandered all over a local funeral home. By the end of the semester, my classmates and I were experts. We knew all about the psychology of death, had studied the death industry scams, and were armed for combat against any undertaker who was stupid enough to try and pull a fast one on us.

Even so, the first time that I helped plan a funeral, I was completely overwhelmed. My family and I were in shock and were totally baffled by the confusing array of services that the funeral home offered. When it came to the coffin, however, we had some definite ideas. Basically, we wanted an inexpensive, attractive wooden casket that would bio-degrade, letting our loved one re-enter the earth.

This wasn't all that easy to find. We learned that coffins are like wedding dresses. They cost a lot of money, are used once, and are generally put away for eternity. Even discount coffins (and yes, they do exist!) started at $700, and prices went well over $20,000. We finally agreed on a model that cost around $1,000 and left us feeling only moderately screwed. Meanwhile, the funeral director did everything he could to hard-sell us on the more expensive models, up to and including making us feel that we were cheating our loved one on her final gift.

On some levels, it's easy to understand why coffin companies charge so much. To begin with, they're dealing with an ideal consumer. People buying caskets are depressed, often feel guilty, and aren't really in the mood to haggle or comparison shop. For many people, a beautiful coffin is the last way to say goodbye, and they want to do everything in their power to honor the deceased. Throw in the fact that there is a definite time constraint on burials, and it becomes clear that, emotionally, logistically and economically, undertakers have their customers over a barrel. Besides, it's not like they really need to focus on repeat business.

To be fair, it's also worth noting that coffins cost a lot to produce. They are often constructed out of rare woods or expensive metals, feature all sorts of expensive hardware and have beautiful woodwork. The materials aren't cheap to procure and it takes a highly-skilled craftsman to construct the final product.

One solution to the coffin dilemma is a little bit of forward planning. A few days ago, Tom Barlow noted that funeral pre-arrangement can be a major scam; however, a little bit of research and an honest talk with your family members can save a lot of money down the line. For example, The Natural Burial Company offers a very interesting selection of relatively inexpensive, biodegradable coffins (I hate re-using the terms "coffin" and "casket." Is "carcass vessel" in poor taste?). Natural Burial's products include woven wicker caskets, simple pine boxes and recycled-paper "Ecopods." These items are available through a wide network of funeral homes, churches and cemeteries, giving you numerous reasonably-priced, attractive, and green choices for your big trip across the river Styx.

Another option is making your own casket. This is a great way to save money, get in touch with your worries about death, and build an awesome piece of furniture. Essentially, a casket is nothing more than a wooden box, approximately six feet long, and about 12"-18" square. Depending on how you accessorize it, it can make a great bookcase, an oversized coffee table, a large hope chest, or even an entertainment center. While you can create something more elaborate, this can also be a very simple carpentry project. In addition to several kits, MHP Caskets carries a wide variety of easy-to-follow plans at very reasonable prices. If you want something a little more elaborate and fun, you might take a peek at Casket Furniture. In addition to an impressive array of kits, they also offer some truly fantastic pieces, including a casket coffee table, a casket phone booth, and casket sofas. Granted, most of these items are aimed at the Goth market, but they are available in beautifully-finished light wood, which means that they'll blend well with your Ikea furniture. Best of all, they'll help you prepare for a visit from your in-laws...or the grim reaper!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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