Twenty years ago when my Papa Wham died, I had my first encounter with the funerary business. Daddy took Granny and Aunt Cathy to Cannon’s Funeral Home to make the arrangements and pick out the things for Papa’s funeral. My little brother and I went along. I remember when we were picking out caskets, Nick and I both took a liking to a solid oak casket with satin lining. We thought Papa would have looked wonderful in it. We were both hurt when Daddy nixed our choice for a plain, gunmetal grey metal casket. Honestly, I thought it looked cheap. That’s when I learned my first lesson about funerals.
See, Daddy explained Papa only left $10,000 total in life insurance. Now to me, that sounded (and actually still sounds) like a lot of money, but inside a funeral home, even twenty years ago, $10,000 doesn’t go very far. That casket Nick and I loved so much? It was $4000 in 1995 money. If Daddy had bought it, he’d have had to leave many other necessities unbought or paid for them with money none of us had available. I learned a lot that day.
The main two things I learned were, first, funeral arrangements are not cheap and, two, a lot more is involved with a funeral than just a casket and a hole in the ground. Since Papa Wham’s funeral, I’ve had to plan three other funerals more or less on my own: Papa John, Mama, and, most recently, Granny’s, and I’ve helped plan three or four others, including Granny Wham’s. I’ve learned the hard way a funeral home planning room is no place for sentimentality as ironic as that sounds.
For one thing, EVERYTHING has a cost. The funeral director sits down with you and the rest of the family and he or she has a planning sheet. ANYTHING that gets written down on that sheet of paper costs something and sometimes the prices can take your breath away. What’s more, you need things you had no idea you actually needed.
Most basically, you have to buy a vault and casket. I didn’t even know what a vault was as pertaining to burial. The vault is a watertight sealed box the casket goes in. It keeps the casket from deteriorating and collapsing in which in turn keeps the ground of the grave nice and level so the cemetery groundskeeper can run the zero turn mower up and down the rows of graves without scalping the grass. Vaults are priced from expensive to astronomical. The vault I bought for Papa John, Mama, and Granny is called the Titan. It’s concrete and has a 250 warranty. I figure I won’t be here to renew the warranty.
The Titan is near the bottom of the price scale. It and the plain white metal casket I buried Granny in cost $6000 right out the gate. From there, the sky is quite literally the limit for price. They have vaults which are solid copper and hermetically seal which can run upwards of $50,000 just by themselves. You can have the vault engraved with the decedent’s name and dates and such just like a tombstone, but keep in mind when you get to the cemetery, that vault is going to be under four feet of dirt already and when the ceremony ends, they’ll put another two feet of dirt on top of it. You can pay all the money you want and you’ll never see any sign of that $50,000 copper box than you will the $5,000 concrete box. People pay it though.
I asked the funeral director who helped me plan the three funerals I had to plan why people would pay so much for something that doesn’t do the job any better and that you never see. He said two main factors drive what people spend on a funeral — age and guilt. Children and teenagers often have MUCH more expensive trapping like solid wood coffins and the like as opposed to elderly. I can understand that. A life has been cut short and a nice, expensive funeral seems like one way to give to that young person what’s never going to be given to them in life.
Guilt is worse. People who didn’t go see mother in the funeral home or who may have had issues with a person that went to the grave unresolved seem to think spending a mint on the funeral will somehow square things. I’ll admit my three funerals might be considered cheap to people on the outside. Hell, I got nasty calls after Mama’s funeral from one family member who said I’d buried Mama in a casket he wouldn’t have put a dog in. Luckily for me, I never had to use a funeral to tie up loose ends. I could look Papa John, Mama, and Granny all three in their cold dead faces and even though I was sad, I didn’t have any guilt. I did what I could for them while they were living. I’m glad I can say that and I’m sorry for anyone who can’t.
After the casket and vault get taken care of, you have to have a hole. You might not think much about holes but when a body is going in one, it’s not a hole, it’s a grave and that’s a whole (no pun intended) different story. The cemetery charged me $1500 for what they called “opening and closing costs.” Basically, I paid them $1500 to dig a square hole with a backhoe six feet deep, eight feet long, and three feet wide and then, a few hours later, to fill said hole in with dirt.
I forgot about embalming! If you’re going to have a viewing or a wake involving an open casket, you have to have the body embalmed. That’s another $1500 – $2000. I had Granny embalmed so Aunt Pearl and Rachel could see her one more time, but I didn’t have Mama embalmed because her express wish was she didn’t “want anyone walking by gawking at me and blabbering about how good I look!” Yes, ma’am. Closed casket it is.
Once the funeral is over, one big purchase remains — the marker. This is the bronze or granite headstone with the name and dates and maybe something like “beloved mother” carved on it. It’s basically a slab of rock or metal. Don’t let that fool you though. It’s one of the most expensive slabs of metal you’ll ever buy. One branch of my family owns a marble and monument company that makes headstones — they start in four figures and head straight up from there. I just made the second and final payment on Granny’s marker today. The worst part is the cemetery charges a $400 fee to set the marker in the ground at the head of the grave. $400.
So, the bottom line is if you don’t have a bare bones minimum of $10,000 life insurance, you are going to leave your family in a bad situation when you die whether it’s now or when you’re an oldster. $25,000 is a whole lot better because you just never know what comes up when someone goes down.
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.