Andy Cross/The Denver Post
COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – When Sue Fletcher was helping her husband arrange his grandmother’s funeral, she was astonished at the casket’s cost – more than $3,000. Then, when her mother-in-law found the same casket online for $1,000, Fletcher got mad.
“Sometimes, there’s a 600-percent markup,” she said. “I know that there are caskets made in China for $400 or $500 that are sold here for thousands.”
So, last April, she and her husband and sons started the Colorado Casket Co.
The company office and showroom inhabit an east Colorado Springs building that also serves self-storage warehouse units, which is pragmatic. What is a casket but the final self-storage unit?
When it comes time to plan a funeral, “Most people don’t realize they can bring in an outside casket,” Fletcher said.
That’s because, as independent funeral consultant Randy Larson observed, “Death is a topic that people don’t like to research.” He established his business four years ago, after spending seven years working for Service Corporation International, North America’s largest provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services.
Do a little research, and you’ll learn that funerals can be expensive – about half the cost of the average American wedding, which experts say was about $27,000 in 2011. And just like weddings, the death-planning details add up – embalming, cremation, makeup, dressing, viewing charges, headstone, music, chapel service, graveside service, limousines, flowers and so on.
But the biggest single purchase is a casket.
“I just don’t understand spending $7,000 to $10,000 on something that goes into the ground,” Fletcher said. “A casket’s true life, when you purchase it, is 48 hours. That’s the viewing, the service and the burial. Then it goes in the ground.”
Most people who buy a casket don’t think in those terms. Fewer people are investing in what the funeral industry terms “pre-need planning” – buying a casket and cemetery plot, and making funeral arrangements well ahead of the day they die.
“The baby boomers are not doing pre-need,” said John Horan, director of Horan and McConaty, the Denver-based funeral and cremation service business.
“Overall, baby boomers, as a group, don’t really seek out this discussion until they have to,” Horan said. “The boomers really represent the first generation in humankind where a death in the inner circle has become uncommon. This is the first time in history so many people have been able to live into their 50s and not experience the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling or a child.”
Consequently, when a death does occur, the result is what Larson calls “emotional overspending.” Even after an anticipated death – the death of someone in hospice, for example – survivors go into a kind of shock, he said.
“Once death occurs, it’s really tough to do research, because it adds another step in there that most people don’t want to do,” Larson said.
“When a family is making decisions for a loved one, one place where they’ll err is on overspending. If Mom or Grandfather hasn’t chosen a casket, the family feels awkward about picking the least-expensive casket. It seems shallow to bicker over price and quality.”
Options to customize caskets by adding guardian-angel panels and corner decorations also add to the expense.
“Caskets now being made with corners that offer a variety of ways to customize with a religious or mountain scene, or fish, or golf clubs,” he said.
“There are caskets being made with a drawer that allows family members to put keepsakes and notes to leave with the deceased.”
The least-expensive caskets start at just under $500, but add-ons can drive up the cost quickly. A grieving family might deem the extra expense worthwhile, though, finding a measure of comfort in thinking of the guardian angel keeping company with a casket’s occupant.
More important than the casket, in Horan’s view, is the service.
“From my perspective, someone does not need to spend a lot of money on a casket,” Horan said. “The important thing is a service. The opportunity that the casket offers is the chance to have the deceased present, to give people an opportunity to connect what the mind knows with what the heart and gut struggle to believe. I saw it this morning at a Catholic church. The priest said something to the effect of, by bringing your family member’s body here, you are honoring not just the life of that person, but also the vessel that contained that person.”