The Basics of Burial Containers

By: Jackie Vinal
Friday, August 19, 2016

    One of the rather complicated tasks in planning a traditional funeral is choosing a casket. Many of the people we assist in making arrangements are overwhelmed by the variety of caskets available, and we find that clients often have misconceptions about their rights when purchasing a burial container, as well as what contributes to the price of the container they select. To begin with, the words "coffin" and "casket" are often used interchangeably, though there is technically a difference. Caskets are much more common these days. They're the rectangular burial container with two lid panels, one of which is often left open for viewing and visitations. Coffins are somewhat out of fashion in the United States, though they are still quite popular in Central Europe and South America. Coffins are the burial containers we typically see in old black and white vampire movies. They have an elongated hexagonal shape with the head of the container being larger than the feet to accomodate shoulder width. Whether you use the term "casket" or "coffin" isn't a big deal, however. No matter which term you use, your funeral director will be able to help you find an appropriate container.

     The biggest misconception we encounter is that a casket will protect their loved one from the processes of nature after long after burial. The unfortunate truth is that there is no casket that genuinely offers permanent protection from the elements. In fact, making such claims is prohibited by the Fair Trade Commission. The Funeral Rule – which is a standard set forth by the FTC regarding business carried out by funeral homes – states that “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.” The Funeral Rule also states that you are welcome to purchase a casket from any source you choose – and funeral homes are not allowed to prevent you from doing otherwise: “Furthermore, no funeral home can charge a fee for the customer using a casket bought elsewhere through an alternative source, nor require a family member to be present for its delivery, nor make a funeral services package contingent upon the purchase of a casket or outer container.” If you are ever in doubt regarding what your funeral home can and cannot do, or if you would like more information regarding your rights as a consumer when seeking funeral services, we highly recommend that you have a look at the FTC’s Funeral Rule for yourself. 

     We suspect a source of confusion is that some vendors offer caskets described as “sealed” or “gasketed.” This simply means that the casket comes with a rubber lining along the lid, which will help minimize the amount of water that enters the container in the short term. Unfortunately, the lining will degrade over time with exposure to the elements, and the gasket or “seal” will do nothing to slow decomposition or protect the body from other forces of nature, like tree roots or insects. It’s not the prettiest picture, but we believe honesty is important. We certainly won’t discourage you from choosing a sealed casket if that’s what you would prefer, but we will never recommend a casket on inflated claims that it will indefinitely protect the remains inside, and we will always do our best to clarify potentially misleading terms like “sealed.”

     Now that we’ve straightened out some misinformation, let’s have a look at some of the factors that contribute to the cost of a casket. After all, they’re typically the most expensive item purchased for a funeral. In fact, caskets average anywhere between $2000 and $4000, and just a couple decades ago, caskets came with a minimum price tag that would routinely run in the $3,000 range. Fortunately, things have changed, and someone planning a funeral can easily find a traditional, though minimalist casket for around $995 or less. Obviously, a thousand dollars isn’t cheap by any means, but it’s certainly an improvement.

     Of course, little details like handles, interior fabric, and ornamentation will add to the price, but the biggest feature affecting the cost will be the material the casket is made of. Metal caskets are usually made of steel, copper, bronze, or an alloy. Steel caskets are by far the most popular option because they are available in a wide variety of styles and their prices are reasonable. Gauge, or thickness of a steel casket can also affect its price. Common gauge ranges offered by vendors span from 20 gauge (thinnest) to 16 gauge (thickest).However, caskets made of copper or bronze can rack up a bill considerably, especially since their prices are determined by weight per square foot. Caskets are also available in a number of hardwoods, like walnut, cherry, cedar, or mahogany which run the entire gamut of prices, from $200 chipboard crates all the way to $10,000 masterpieces of carpentry. The most inexpensive option for a casket in a traditional full-service funeral is fiberglass. It’s lightweight, and comes in a similar array of colors and styles as caskets made of other materials at a fraction of the cost.

     The list of materials available for for burial containers extends even further if you're open to less traditional styles of burial. There's an entire movement favoring minimalist and eco-friendly burials, which often make use hand-made burial containers, and containers made of biodegradable materials, cardboard, or even burial sheets. All of these are surprisingly affordable and allow for a unique send off that makes a powerful statement, truly embracing the journey from dust to dust, and acknowledging that we are part of our environment, especially in death. However, these less conventional philosophies on burial merit an entire post to themselves.

     In the event that you find yourself in the market for a burial container, remember that you can always ask your funeral director for a list of caskets available. After all, just because it isn't on display doesn't mean it can't be ordered. Your funeral director will be happy to assist you in finding a burial container that suits your needs while honoring the memory of your loved one.


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