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.