Saturday, September 26, 2009

Death be not expensive

posted Sat, 21 Aug 2004

Apparently, Costco’s decision to sell coffins is being met with some controversy. This controversy starts, as one might imagine, with the funeral homes, who are the usual sellers of coffins. In an article in the London Free Press, Costco explains that the markups on coffins are high: “In the U.S., Costco is selling caskets for $800 US that retail elsewhere for $2,800 US,” the article states.

A funeral home owner interviewed for the story says he isn’t worried about Costco. "I don't see many people comfortable buying a casket at a big box store," he said. "I think people will realize they are better served buying a casket at a funeral home."

The gravestone store in Fez, next to the shoe store.

I have an opinion about this. Coffins ARE expensive. What’s really ridiculous is that you are buying something that is for someone who is dead. A coffin will not keep a body from decomposing. Neither will embalming. I don’t want to be embalmed and if I can get away with it, I sure don’t want an expensive coffin. Even if there were a way to keep a body from rotting, I wouldn’t want to keep the one I have. If there is a rapture and we all are restored to our bodies for the second coming (I don’t know a lot of the details of how this is supposed to work – millennialism is not really a Catholic thing), I want Cindy Crawford’s body. I want to trade up.

A coffin is just a fancy way of putting a body in the ground. Why should you spend any more than you have to? When my dad died, we were fortunate that the funeral director lived in the same small town where my dad was raised. He knows everyone there and knows he can’t cheat people or word will get around. He didn’t put any pressure on us as we were choosing a coffin, but even so, I realize in retrospect that we should have asked to see the cheaper stuff in the back. You choose from the coffins in the showroom – but maybe there are better bargains elsewhere.

My dad had it in his will that he wanted to be buried in a plain pine box. Despite that, my mom started to worry that maybe we should get the nicer, more expensive coffin. I told her that if dad were alive, he would have told her not to waste the money on a coffin but to take a trip to Paris instead. Of course, if he had been alive, we wouldn’t have been shopping for a coffin, but we didn’t get that lucky.

The one we got cost about $3,000, I think, and it was the least expensive one. Then we had to buy a vault, which was a surprise to me. A vault costs another $3,000 or so. Yeah, if we could have gone to Costco and saved $4,000, that would have been great.

A few years after my dad died, I read “The American Way of Death,” by Jessica Mitford. It is a fascinating book. Even though it was written in the early 60s I believe, a lot of what she had to say is applicable today. The book is an expose of the funeral industry. Morticians have managed to get laws passed requiring people to buy vaults and coffins, etc. It used to be, I think, that you could get a coffin only through a funeral home.

The thing is that when you are in the situation that you actually do need to buy a coffin, you are not in a position to comparison shop or to take your time or to ask questions about what you have to do. Embalming may or may not be required by law. But why should the law even mess with such a thing? And why should the law tell you that you have to buy a coffin? In some states, even if you are going to be cremated, you have to buy a coffin. How ridiculous is that?

When I am dead, I don’t want to be embalmed and I want the cheapest coffin available if I must have one. The corrugated coffin below should cost about $30, based on what I know about corrugated manufacturing costs. Spending money on burial extras is a waste. And you know how my people are about wasting things.

Something that I think bothers people about coffins in Costco is that our culture in general does not deal well with death. We are obsessed with youth. We put our old people in warehouses so we won’t have to see them and be reminded of our own mortality. My dad always thought that was a big disadvantage of raising his children on military bases – that we never saw anyone who was old or sick. We certainly never went to any funerals. “Death is a part of life,” he told me. “When I was a kid, people would die and we would go to the funeral.” I didn’t go to my first funeral until after I was out of college. My dad’s funeral was only the second one I ever attended.

I think death is accepted more in other countries. In Latin America, All Souls’ Day is celebrated by everyone going to the cemetery to tidy the graves of their loved ones. They take flowers and picnics and spend the day together. It’s like a big party in remembrance of the ones who have died.

And coffins aren’t hidden in the back room of the funeral home. They are in stores, in the windows, right there where you can see them. The coffin store might be next to the stationary store or the greengrocer.

I wish things were different here. I wish it were OK to get old and to look old and that dying of cancer was not viewed as a personal failing. I think that Costco is doing the right thing. Get my coffin there but make sure it’s the cheapest one! Spend the rest of the money on the wake and on the post-funeral lunch. That’s how I want to be remembered – by people gathering and eating good food and telling stories about me. Not by an expensive box that gets put into the dirt.

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