A Well-Planned Departure
My Grandma’s passing and a few thoughts on final arrangements.
This essay was written in 1999 but never published. I'm publishing it 23 years later in 2022, with a few additions that are identified.
On Friday the 13th in August of 1999, my mother and I had a 3:30 pm appointment with the funeral director to pick out a casket for my grandmother.
Grandma was still with us but we’ve always been a well-organized family who planned ahead. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful of my beloved grandmother, who was on her way to passing from this world, but it was only a matter of time at that point and we thought we’d be prepared.
The funeral director gave us a price list to review. On this list, the caskets ranged from $65 to around $5,000. The $65.00 one was called the “Alternative,” which was described as “cardboard with a reinforced plywood bottom” — I suppose to keep the deceased from falling through, especially on a rainy day. You know the perils of a wet-bottomed cardboard box. I wondered if this “Alternative” casket had those plastic handles, like on the put-together boxes for under-the-bed storage. If so, were they included — or did they cost extra?
The funeral price list itemized the costs involved, though Mom decided to go for the package plan, which included everything we would need.
I noticed on the itemized sheet that they charged $245 to “transfer the remains” to the funeral home — apparently from wherever the deceased had taken their final breath. So at what moment does one become “remains?” And why don’t they call it a “body,” I thought at first? Then as my question was suddenly answered in my mind, I made an effort to think about something besides a grotesquely altered body from an accident or homicide. In that case, obviously, the body would be more appropriately called “remains,” so using the term from the start covered all possibilities.
The next question in my mind was whether one could put the deceased in their own car and drive them to the funeral home if they chose to save the $245? Or would that be illegal? What about a cab? Not that anyone would really consider this — it’s just a question. One that perhaps no one has ever asked the funeral director — at least not out loud.
Mom spent almost 10 grand for her mother’s preparation for the afterlife. We picked out a lovely dark oak casket that matched her late husband’s casket, knowing that grandma would have liked that. The funeral director was kind enough to check his records from 1985 for the model number of grandpa’s casket. It had increased only $3,000 in price since then, which we thought was reasonable.
The funeral home also offered “wearing apparel” for the deceased. These ranged from $25 to $225. I noticed the apparel displayed in the lit closet with sliding glass doors in the corridor that connected the two casket showrooms. (as a note of interest — the “Alternative” casket was not on display with the others).
I was quite bewildered by the selection of wearing apparel. I’d like to believe that I missed the entire collection, but all I saw on display, were men’s suits and women’s nightgowns. Do even the dead experience such male chauvinism?*
The men get buried in suits but the women only get the choice of a nightie? Please! Like the men have somewhere important to go in the afterlife, but the women will just be lounging around?
I haven’t been to many funerals, but my sense is that women are often buried in a nightgown. However, I doubt that men are ever buried in their pajamas! Maybe men have a harder time getting into heaven, so wearing a suit gives them the edge they need at the pearly gates.
I also noticed on the price list, that the law does not require embalming. However, it stated that embalming was “necessary” in a “funeral with viewing” — now, does that mean required by law for viewing or just suggested in order to keep the deceased attractive? Please excuse my seemingly morbid mentality, but these questions kept coming to mind.
One thing on the price sheet that really concerned me was the listing of a “Rental Casket.” They ranged from $795 to $995 (a fraction of the price of owning a casket). I’m scratching my head on this one. Under what circumstances would one rent a casket? Is the rental just for the viewing and then they remove your loved one and reinsert them into perhaps, the “Alternative” casket, or maybe even just a sheet, for burial?
Being buried in just a sheet would be my preference — I’ve heard that’s all that’s required in an “organic” cemetery…yes they have organic cemeteries.
I wasn’t using search engines on a regular basis in 1999, but when publishing this piece in 2022, I wanted more information about rental caskets. As I suspected, the rental is a low-budget option. It’s used only for the viewing in the funeral home, with the deceased buried in the casket “insert.” Most importantly, according to several funeral home websites, no one will know that your loved one is in a rental. Image management for the deceased, or rather their family.
Once the word gets out, I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to purchase a casket over the rental option. That is, besides the obvious guilt factor which I imagine would haunt 90% of the population.
Obviously, Rental caskets are more environmentally friendly. Perhaps the guilt-prone family members might feel better knowing that the departed would appreciate a lower carbon footprint. Transition accommodations with lower environmental impact might score points for the deceased in the afterlife. That wasn’t intended as an irreverent snipe. The truth is that no matter what we “believe,” we simply don’t know what our late loved ones will encounter once they leave their body. They might be in for a big surprise.
Apparently, the law requires the purchase of a vault to encase the casket, once it is buried. I guess this is for environmental safety reasons — not from the deceased themselves but to keep all that embalming fluid out of our rivers and lakes. Another question — if the deceased was not embalmed, would you still be required to purchase a vault? Why don’t we know these things? Passing away is not what it used to be — even death is not exempt from the complexities of modern life.
When we left the funeral home, I had the opportunity to get a better look at the receptionist, who was now standing by her desk. I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance between her outfit and the inside of the caskets we had seen. She wore a purple satin matching skirt and blouse, which had the same kind of smocking pattern as the caskets on display.
The cemetery plot that my grandmother had owned for many years was only about a mile away from the funeral home. (I told you we were a family that planned ahead).
The funeral director informed us that since the cemetery had changed hands a few years back, the prices for opening a grave had skyrocketed. The fee to “open the grave” was $945, but of course that included “closing” it as well.
These days they use a small bulldozer, which must take all of 15 minutes to dig the grave.
My next question was that since my grandmother owned the plot, could she have “her people” dig her grave? Not likely. It was probably also illegal for some strange reason (like liability). I’m sure the fine print of her deed stated that only the cemetery personnel were authorized to “open” the grave.
Back to the funeral home price sheet, the next question I had: I noticed a service listed called “Disinterment” — I had to look this up in Webster’s when I got home and discovered that it was digging up a body or to “exhume” as is the familiar term. Disinterment costs $450. Does this include only the arrangements made by the funeral home or does it include the fee that the cemetery most certainly must charge to “reopen” the grave? I hope to never have the need for the answer to this question.
Since Grandma was 97 years old at her passing and most of her male friends had already departed from this world, we were short a few pallbearers. I’m not sure if our package deal covered the two extra we needed, but for future reference, I took note that they were listed at $50 each. I wondered if these men were moonlighting or if they were full-time professional pallbearers?
Recently, I was leafing through the Occupational Outlook Handbook in my local public library and happened upon “Funeral Directors.” I was surprised to find that their annual salary averages only $35,000. I had the misconception that these folks were raking in the bucks. Apparently not.
I guess what seems like exorbitant prices must be necessary to cover the “slow” weeks when no one’s number is up. The funeral home we used for my grandmother was a family business run by two brothers, one who liked to fish. I guess there were times when the “Gone Fishin” sign was on his door for a few days in a row, and I’m sure he was grateful for the invention of the cell phone since the funeral home offers their services 7 days a week.
The cemetery, however, would not open a grave on a Sunday. So if the dearly departed passed at the end of the week the family would need to postpone for a day.
I hope that I have answered some of those nagging questions you may have had about your “final arrangements.”
And one final tip — just the other day I saw the “Casket Royale” advertised on daytime TV for only $595. It probably doesn’t include shipping, but might be a better choice than the cardboard “Alternative” casket if you are on a budget and don’t want a rental. Though be careful– it may arrive in a box that reads, “assembly required.”
Joking aside, my grandmother Sophie was one of a kind. She always had a positive outlook and was hardly sick a day in her life. She didn’t believe in germs and apparently, they didn’t believe in her. Thanks, Grandma for passing on your healthy genes. I miss you dearly but you’ll always be in my heart.
*In 1999, we used the term “male chauvinism.” I’m not sure why we don’t use it anymore since it’s still accurate. I now use the term “male supremacy,” though it seems most others use the term “sexism,” which waters down the concept. Sexism is defined as prejudice and discrimination, while “male chauvinism” includes the belief in male superiority.