Caskets come in all price ranges. But did you ever wonder what makes a "Rolls-Royce" casket worth thousands of dollars more than the caskets purchased for the typical funeral?
That's a question John Marsellus, president of Marsellus Casket Co., is happy to answer. The company his great-grandfather founded on the banks of the Erie Canal in Syracuse, N.Y., 120 years ago has acquired a sterling reputation for its hand-crafted hardwood caskets.
Like Clarksburg Casket Co. in Clarksburg, W.Va., which also produces only wooden caskets, Marsellus is an example of a small-to-medium-sized company that has found a niche by offering high-quality products in a specialized field. Presidents Kennedy and Truman were buried in Marsellus caskets. And recently, when members of Alex Haley's family wanted something special, their funeral director contacted the company.
Caskets, like a Rolls-Royce or any other product, can be specially crafted at almost any price, but a Marsellus casket at the high end of the price range can cost around $12,000. That sounds like a lot of money, but in fact fine metal caskets could cost as much or more -- although the solid copper or bronze sarcophagi costing $20,000 and up (and so heavy they could ruin the springs of a typical hearse) aren't made anymore.
In terms of old-fashioned craftsmanship -- the kind of labor-intensive, time-consuming perfectionism that might go into the finest furniture -- talk of a "Rolls-Royce" casket is more likely to center on hardwood caskets.
A number of factors influence the price of a hardwood casket -- the wood itself, the design, the finish, the interior and, especially, the quality of the craftsmanship.
An expensive casket should be made of solid wood, not veneer and plywood. Moreover, wood comes in many price ranges, and mahogany costs a lot more than, say, poplar or cottonwood. There are various grades of wood, and an expensive casket should be made from the finest grades, so that the painstaking hand-buffing and finishing will expose the beauty of the grain. The thickness of the wood can also contribute to a higher price.
Marsellus says that it can take can up to 350 board feet of lumber to build a fine casket. The process of molding it into a finished product takes about eight months, including time to dry or season the wood.
A plain design would cost less than one with details carved into the wood, which can take more time and skill. Fine hardwood caskets are hand-assembled, then hand-rubbed and finished with four to five coats of lacquer -- not for protection, Marsellus says, but rather to bring out the beauty of the wood.
The interior of a fine casket is typically lined with velvet, although Marsellus notes that some families might prefer crepe or even linen. But whatever the material, he says it should be of the highest quality to justify the price. For instance, the velvet should have a thick pile and tight weave, and should feel thick and plush when rolled between the fingers. The interior would also be sewn and tufted by hand.
The elusive quality in all of this is the human element -- the craftsmanship that comes from years of training, experience and pride in the smallest details. That in itself is an important cost factor.
Of course, not everyone would want an expensive hardwood casket, even if cost is not a factor. But people who do select these products should know what they are paying for -- and make sure they are getting it.
(Do you have a question about mortality for Sara Engram? You can write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112. Questions of general interest will be addressed in future columns.)