All You Need to Know About Caskets, caskets, caskets

All You Need To Know About Caskets

Reduced to its simplest terms, a casket is the box which holds the body and a burial vault or grave liner is the "box which holds the box". For sales purposes they will be called everything but these simplisitic terms. You'll hear caskets referred to in gaudy terms such as interment vessels, while the vault or liner is the outer container. If you can be savvy enough to see past these embellishments you'll be ahead of the game.

Mankind first began burying its dead for very practical reasons. There were plenty of predators about and the last thing ancient man wanted was for them to develop a taste for humans. Later, burial and cremation were ways of disposing of the dead without risking horrible plagues such as cholera. In the Middle Ages, when superstition was religion (and vice-versa), the dead's legs were broken and large stones placed atop the grave, to keep the dead from "wandering". The tombstone is a holdover from this custom.

Last century a death in the family meant contacting the local cabinetmaker or carpenter who would construct a simple box, getting friends and family to dig the grave in the family, church, or community cemetery, have a minister say a few words, then adjourning to care for the survivors. The total outlay? Maybe twenty dollars. Today a casket can cost tens of thousands of dollars. IF you let it.

The First Lie

Of the somewhat meaningless figure the NFDA cites as their average funeral cost, an unrealistic $5,300 or so for 1999, the industry claims the casket only accounts for about 14%. Two things are wrong with these figures; the total figure is the average of all funerals, including direct burials, indigent burials, and cremations, and does NOT include the costs of burial plots, fees for opening and closing the grave, burial vaults, or monuments, AND the 14% figure is from an NFDA report published in the early 1970s! IF the NFDA figures were correct, your average casket would cost only $750 (14% of $5300) instead of the nearly $2,200 figure current surveys reveal. This is just the surface of untruths the industry puts forth about caskets.

Materials and Construction

Caskets come in a wide range of materials, each of which has its selling points. I can't say each has its advantages, because this is simply untrue. In fact, the Funeral Rule is specific in its language regarding supposed benefits of caskets, which is summarized as follows:

No casket or outer burial container shall be held forth as offering superior 'protection' of the remains from water, moisture, biological invasion (insects, grubs, etc ...), or roots, when it ISN'T TRUE. Nor shall claims of indefinite preservation be made. Furthermore, NO FUNERAL HOME CAN CHARGE A FEE FOR THE CUSTOMER USING A CASKET BOUGHT ELSEWHERE THROUGH AN ALTERNATE SOURCE, NOR REQUIRE A FAMILY MEMBER BE PRESENT FOR ITS DELIVERY, NOR MAKE A FUNERAL SERVICES PACKAGE CONTINGIENT UPON THE PURCHASE OF A CASKET OR OUTER CONTAINER..

In short, no matter what the materials or construction of the container, the body WILL return to nature. That said, here's what you'll have to choose from.


This supposedly means STEEL, but the truth is there are several popular alloys used which are cheaper and lighter than steel, and lend themselves more-readily to the construction process. This is by far the most popular material in use today, and also one of the highest mark-ups. On a visit to a casket factory in August of 1997, I was told by the manufacturer that their average metal casket cost them $64 in materials and labor, and wholesaled to the funeral director for $264, which included packaging and delivery. Similar units to this routinely sell for $1,795 - $2,695 in funeral homes. You can do the math on the mark-up for yourself.

Metal caskets are listed by the thickness of the material as stated in gauges, such as 20-gauge, 16-gauge, etc ..., which is similar to the way shotguns are classified by the thickness of their barrels. The insinuation is that the thicker the material, the longer-lasting or more protective the casket. This isn't the case, of course, since even the lowest gauge casket will likely outlast the body inside it. Average price for a metal unit from a funeral home runs $1,350-$3,750, while our alternative sources start as low as $450 for a perfectly acceptable unit. The average difference in price between a 16-gage and a 20-gage unit? Try about $1,000.

Semiprecious Metals

This somewhat fanciful category includes Bronze, Copper, and Stainless Steel. Bronze has been around for a long time. It has a reputation for durability born in the Bronze Age, and a price tag similar to an automobile. The highest-priced unit we found was a bronze casket which, on the East Coast at least, had a range from $15,000 to an unbelievable $70,000. They are durable, and pretty, and the top of the line for snob appeal, but all too often they are merely a plated alloy and the bottom may well be thin metal of another type which can and will deteriorate much sooner than the sides and top.

Bronze and copper are listed in weight per square foot of material, usually cited as 32 oz., or 34 oz.. Average cost from a funeral home, $5,700 - $10,000 and UP. Cost from our alternative sources, under $3,000. Copper holds up well and, of the two, is probably the better buy. The same problems as cited for bronze apply. Average cost from a funeral home, $3,900-$8,700 and UP. From our alternate sources, under $2,000.

Stainless Steel is included among the 'semiprecious metals' to differentiate it from the regular metal caskets. The durability of stainless steel is well known, with the caveat that there is no guarantee the bottom isn't made from some other metal. Average funeral home price, $3,000 and up. Alternative prices, under $1500.


Many nice caskets are fashioned from oak, cherry, walnut, mahogany, and poplar. There are also some very nice models of pine, but you're not likely to be shown those unless you ask. These are works of art, but without even the facade of protective qualities touted in the metal lines. If you bought one of these, I'll almost guarantee you were given a strong pitch to buy an upscale burial vault to 'protect' it. Average price from a funeral home, $2,000 - $20,000. From alternative sources, $795 - $3,000


Cloth-covered and Plain Wood

Many of these are available for under $500, even from a funeral home, and can be dressed-up with a flag, floral arrangements, or alternate hardware to good advantage. Some are nicely finished and perfect for viewing prior to cremation. A recent wrinkle is getting a white cloth-covered casket, and having friends and families 'autograph' it with their thoughts and remembrances. This is particularly apt for the young, as it affords the survivors an act of 'closeure' prior to the funeral.

There are a range of 'tricks' funeral homes use to make purchasing such a unit distasteful. They may refer to them, or any other reasonably-priced casket, as a Morgue Box, or even as a Welfare Box. They may keep them in an out-of-the-way corner, basement, or hallway, and have their display models in unflattering color combinations. (Note: I've actually seen one of these in an ARMY GREEN color, with a PUTTY colored lining!) These units come in literally hundreds of models and color combinations. Average price from a funeral home, $495 - $995. From our alternative sources, $295- $450.

Other Materials

Relative newcomers to the industry are the highly durable fibreglass and space-age plastic caskets. For durability it would be hard to beat these materials. The plastic casket manufacturer, for instance, warrants materials for 500 years. The EPA, which has studied the same material in our landfills the past several decades, cites 2,000+ years as a more-likely duration! Both units look similar to their metal counterparts, and retail from a funeral home at $2,500-3,900. From our alternate sources they are available for $1,350-1,900. If a long-lived material is desired, consider this: the poly-foam used in making soft drink coolers will outlast virtually any material currently used in the casket business!


The funeral industry routinely marks-up caskets 400%-1500% of their cost. The fancy hardware and plush interior will matter little to the 'guest of honor'. No casket made will halt either the natural deterioration of the body (though some will accellerate it!), nor penetration by roots or water. Ask, no DEMAND!, to be shown models within your price range. There are dozens of caskets under $1,000 readily available, so don't just choose from what the funeral director shows how or has on the display floor; virtually any model can be available within hours in any color combination you choose. Don't be 'shamed' into anything.

The book and planning program offer dozens of tips on how to save money while providing the dignity and reverence your loved one deserves. Primarily this is covered under the heading Popular Sales Ploys and Out-Right SCAMS, some of which will sound familiar if you have arranged a funeral the past thirty years, since they are commonplace. Some of these will likely anger you, and should. This is particularly true in the case of the claims offered about protective or sealing caskets.

If you'd like an alternative price quote on a particular unit, anywhere in North America, phone 1-757-427-0220 during the hours 8 am - 11 pm. A lady in Los Angeles County did so recently, and got the same casket her funeral home had priced at $6,200 . . . for $650, delivered within four hours. It's worth the effort.

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