$11000 coffin of mahogany soaked in sea water for seven years? is this for real?
December 28, 2008 8:03 PM   Subscribe

How likely is it that a funeral home is dishonest? They're pushing a $11,000 mahogany coffin whose wood was apparently soaked in sea-water for seven years first. Google doesn't seem to think this is a standard carpentry practice, although I have found mention of briefer immersions in order to drown any parasites that might attack the wood during later storage and processing.

My father whose mother recently died, has been visiting nearby funeral homes and shopping for a coffin. One place is pushing the aforementioned very heavy mahogany piece. My parents together can hardly lift the lid, and apparently that's a selling point. Another place claims mahogany is a very light wood, lighter than poplar. I've been unable to find any mention of the seven-years-in-sea-water business, and there are tables of various woods that put mahogany a couple hundred kg per cubic meter denser than poplar. Am I missing something here, or are we getting the wool pulled over our eyes?

And now that I am put in a suspicious frame of mind, it seems a bit fishy how we can't opt out of a limousine, or a memorial DVD, or various other things that they insist on bundling with the service. Is this just how things are done? We're willing to pay whatever we have to do get this done, but I'm offended by the idea that someone might try to cheat us at a time like this.

(Incidentally, we've visited three places and haven't yet been shown a coffin for less than $10,000.)
posted by d. z. wang to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My condolences.

I don't wish to sound harsh, but at the end of the day, it's a coffin. You'll see it for a few hours; is that worth $10k? I'd think not; the coffin is there for you, and nominally for the body. Why does it need to be heavy and ornate, when it's very purpose is to be buried forever?
posted by ellF at 8:15 PM on December 28, 2008 [10 favorites]

My sympathies on the loss of your great-grandmother.

The short answer: Yes, it is highly likely. Yes, it is horrific. But yes, you are being preyed upon. Deliberately. THere are many reasons for that.

"The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to show customers a list of all caskets the company sells with descriptions and prices before showing any models.

The Funeral Help Program advises consumers to ask about lower priced caskets, even if they don't appear to be readily available. Some funeral homes tuck cheaper caskets away in a basement. They may even be painted "uglier" colors to seem less appealing.

More attractive colors or cheaper models may need to be ordered, but should only be a phone call away.

"At last count, there were over 500 models of caskets on the market for under $1000," according to their website. If you don't see what you want at a price you are willing to pay, immediately ask to see a catalog."

from Scambusters.
posted by micawber at 8:17 PM on December 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

I do not know the specifics of mahogany coffins, but there are other places that sell coffins, such as Costco. Their website explains the general regulations for purchasing a coffin from Costco and shipping it to a funeral home.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 8:19 PM on December 28, 2008

ColdChef is a very active member who is also a funeral director (he would say undertaker). I would encourage you to MeFi Mail him if he doesn't turn up here to answer you.

Short answer: see micawber's excellent answer above. Yes, this is a scam. Do everything you can to encourage your Father to go elsewhere.

My condolences on your family's loss.
posted by anastasiav at 8:22 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Penn and Teller covered this pretty well in their Bullshit! series. The episode deals with how sketchy the death industry can be to greiving families. I'll link the youtube clip, but no promises on how long the clip stays up.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:27 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, it's not at all uncommon for funeral parlors to take advantage or stretch the truth in your time of need. After all, I'm sure your family is in no mood to negotiate under the circumstances. You even said it: We're willing to pay whatever we have to do get this done

Stick up for yourself and negotiate with the funeral home. If you don't feel comfortable doing it, find another family member who might be willing. As for casket pricing, $10,000 seems pretty expensive. Water soaked wood is a real thing, but is considered a luxury. Forgive me for sounding crass, but it's a wooden box that you'll be putting in the ground. And there are cheaper alternatives available.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:31 PM on December 28, 2008

I have not used them, but a google-search for "funeral society" brought up funeralcounseling.com and a few other websites whose stated aim is to help you not get ripped off when planning a funeral. (So does "funeral cooperative.")
posted by K.P. at 8:38 PM on December 28, 2008

Condolences on your loss.

Although you may not have the time nor inclination right now to read a full-length book relating to your predicament, Profits of Death by Darryl Roberts and the famous American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford address your concerns about "up-selling": an industry practice wherein funeral establishments pressure vulnerable families to purchase expensive versions of their products and/or claim that choices are limited.

According to the FTC's Funeral Rule, you can comparison-shop for coffins and need not purchase one from the funeral home itself. Here are the FTC's guidelines for funeral service providers.

Also, see this page about how to choose a funeral service provider. In particular:

"Some funeral directors violate the law by misrepresenting necessary practices. You should report this behavior, and certainly move on to a more reputable firm, if you are told that any of the following items are necessary - or even if they are ‘pushy' about these issues: Embalming and / or viewing of the deceased; Limousines, clothing rentals and other expensive trappings..."

One additional tip: if you live near a mortuary school, consider contacting the staff or even discussing your situation with students. They may have recommendations about which funeral homes in your area are most reputable and what coffins may meet your families' needs, at reasonable cost.
posted by terranova at 8:48 PM on December 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

A synopsis of the casket bit of the Funeral Rule legislation, from micawber's link:

The consumer can purchase a casket from any source he/she chooses -- even in states where casket sales are limited to licensed funeral directors -- and the funeral home cannot change their prices, nor charge a 'handling fee' for using a casket bought from a third-party.

So if you're in the US, regardless of where you are, it seems you can get a nice casket for literally 1/11th of what this funeral home wants to charge you - and they have to take it.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:55 PM on December 28, 2008

My father whose mother recently died
My condolences.
They're pushing a $11,000 mahogany coffin whose wood was apparently soaked in sea-water for seven years first.
That's absurd.
posted by Flunkie at 8:59 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

My father has been diagnosed with a terminal condition and decided to start planning his funeral ahead of time so we won't have to do it (morbid, but thoughtful). He has a lifelong friend who runs a funeral home and when she came over to show us all the options, she immediately showed us the entire book with caskets ranging from $1k-10k and up. She told me that the expensive ones are unnecessary and sometimes incredibly heavy, and we should keep weight in mind for the pallbearers. We ended up picking one for a little under $3k that was a lighter-weight wood but finished with a dark mahogany-tone finish. We could have gone for a less expensive one, too, but that's the one my dad liked the look of.

So, essentially, yes, it is an upselling scam, and is unfortunately a semi-common practice (at least from the scientifically valid anecdotal evidence I have heard from friends and family), but there are decent funeral homes out there that don't do it. Tell them you want to see lower-priced options; if they refuse, go elsewhere. And remind them that they're violating the FTC rule and will be reported.
posted by bedhead at 9:02 PM on December 28, 2008

Regarding the wood specifically, often logs will end up under water for many many many years, this wood can be conditioned by this immersion giving it a stronger grain than you would otherwise see.
posted by iamabot at 9:37 PM on December 28, 2008

Where are you located? The law in the US specifically prohibits funeral homes from "requiring" you to pay for services you do not want. $10,000 is indeed a steep price for a casket. Not unheard of, but far above the national average.

I've never heard of a sea-water soaked casket, and I can't imagine what benefit it provides.

You can, indeed, purchase a casket on the internet, and funeral homes are required to use them at no additional cost to you, but keep in mind--if the casket is damaged in any way, there's usually no time to rectify it. I've only had a few families provide their own casket (not because of our prices, but because they wanted something that we didn't carry), and on more than one occasion the casket came with scrapes and torn interior fabric. Buyer beware.

Also, keep in mind that you are not just "buying a casket", you are hiring a service. They SERVE you and your interests. And from what you've written here, you are being taken advantage of. Feel free to email me with any other questions.
posted by ColdChef at 9:46 PM on December 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

For restricted woods such as mahogany, wood that has been submerged has become a valuable resource. Using it does not impact South American forests etc. Is it better? Well, submerged wood does have a certain elegant look to it. We had a coffee table growing up made from some wood recovered from a ship wreck. It was heavy and gorgeous, although oak is always pretty heavy and the legs were made from the cast iron anchor chains of the wreck so I don't think the submersion had anything to do with the table's mass. That being said, I am suspicious of the story you were given.
posted by caddis at 10:20 PM on December 28, 2008

A well-made, attractive wooden casket does not have to cost a fortune. Here's a link to a range of coffins made for the Orthodox Jewish market, with prices ranging from $500-$1750. These might not do for your grandmother (they all have Stars of David somewhere on them), but it should give you an idea of a more reasonable price point.
posted by Scram at 10:37 PM on December 28, 2008

It's ridiculous to spend that kind of money on a box that's going in the ground. For a substantial sum like that, I'd go with mummification and an ancient egyptian-style tomb. It would be great fun to die knowing that it'll confuse the hell out of archaeologists a thousand years down from now.
posted by mullingitover at 11:52 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

You should be able to buy a pine box, which is perfectly sufficient for burial.

This site (the Pine Box Casket Company) says their prices start at $700.

When it is going to be buried and nobody is going to see it or touch it after the funeral, why pay more than the bare minimum?
posted by jayder at 12:24 AM on December 29, 2008

When my grandmother died a few years ago, I was the one who talked with the funeral homes about her cremation. I was surprised at how inexpensive and hassle-free the cremation process was, and an added benefit was that we were never asked to make a decision about a casket. There were options of various urns, and we just said, "No, we'll have the remains in a cardboard box," and that was the end of it.
posted by jayder at 12:27 AM on December 29, 2008

Is there really a manufacturer out there who keeps vats of sea water (is it really sea water, really?) presumably in storage for seven years so as to produce this wood? Why seven years? Why not three? Or ten?

For $10,000 they should fly you out to the factory and let you pick the timber... I mean, come on...

It all sounds very arbitrary. Very rip-offish.
posted by wfrgms at 1:00 AM on December 29, 2008

Buy a cheaper casket, and cover it with a nice cloth if the aesthetics bother you.

Yes, you are being ripped off. Funeral homes know that they can get away with this for a couple of reasons: you're traumatised and unable to think straight, and it's the last thing you can do for your relative, so you want it to be good.

Do you think that your relative would have wanted you to spend such a large amount of money on something that was only useful for an hour or two?
posted by Solomon at 1:06 AM on December 29, 2008

What about a cardboard eco-coffin? I used these folk.. as an example. No painting though... how garish! I organised my frugal Scottish grandmother's funeral about 8 weeks ago.. and she had frequently said she wanted to be buried in a cardboard box. She was cremated in the end... not sure if that's more of an Australian custom than an American one.... but we're big crematers here. And the cardboard eco-coffin was a wonderful, elegant compromise. Not cheap exactly... about $700 Australian dollars... but considering how long it's going to be needed for...

I read/heard somewhere in the near past, to refuse embalming. It's expensive and unless there is going to be a viewing (we don't do that very frequently in Australia, but from reading Janet Evanovich, it seems that's the norm for Americans) it's not necessary.
posted by taff at 1:46 AM on December 29, 2008

Oh, and by the way, I've had to organise two funerals in the last three years... and one of them I had to have the support of a lawyer who specialises in Estate Law. He said that it was reasonable and normal to expect to spend approximately $6000 Australian dollars for the entire funeral.

This was far in excess of what my grandmother's funeral cost. Hers was more in the $3500-$4000 from memory. And that was including $1000 worth of limosine car hire for some poorly relatives travelling long distances in peak hour traffic and having the driver wait around at the wake and return the poorly persons to the airport.... three cars in total... bargain! And also included a bagpiper and a dvd. Actually, the dvd was free, the crematorium do them for everyone as a bonus.

I reckon that you're being ripped off. Why in the hell do you want a coffin to last?

Ooops, I'm sorry, my condolences. I apologise for not offering them first off... I'm just so shocked and appalled at the gouging your poor dad is experiencing.
posted by taff at 1:52 AM on December 29, 2008

Scram writes "Here's a link to a range of coffins made for the Orthodox Jewish market, with prices ranging from $500-$1750. These might not do for your grandmother (they all have Stars of David somewhere on them), but it should give you an idea of a more reasonable price point."

Many of the inexpensive coffins on that page are available sans star on their cremation page.
posted by Mitheral at 2:46 AM on December 29, 2008

Woodworker here. Don't bother trying to definitively determine whether mahogany is heavier or lighter than other woods. 'Mahogany' is a broad category that covers many species. Anything that looks vaguely like what we think mahogany should look like gets marketed as mahogany. Unless you have a latin name of the species, or maybe a country of origin, 'mahogany' indicates little more than a diffuse-porous, reddish-brown, non-domestic lumber.

Wood reclaimed after being lost underwater for many years is expensive because it's in limited supply and some people think it's cool. It's not mechanically superior to other woods; neither is it morally superior to cardboard unless you think it is. The funeral home is trying to make money by making you feel bad if you don't splurge on your grandmother. If your family has better things to spend its money on (a virtual certainty), don't let the funeral home tell you what to want.
posted by jon1270 at 4:27 AM on December 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

Just as a data point, my daughter's funeral cost $500 a few years back (coffin, service, limos, internment, small headstone). I was really happy with the service especially because I had read horror stories about funeral homes - which you seem to be experiencing. What about contacting local priests/ministers and asking which funeral homes they have gotten good feedback from their parishioners.
posted by saucysault at 6:45 AM on December 29, 2008

From the NFDA factsheet:

The average cost of a funeral, as of July 2004, is $6,500. That cost includes an outer burial container, but does not include cemetery costs.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:24 AM on December 29, 2008

The sea submerged wood has the following benefits: less environmental impact of rare woods if they are salvaged from wrecks and the second, is in shipbuilding. Old school ship building, like Viking long boat action. I know this only due to a course on ship making. The wood from sea cured wood is more resistant to parasites and the "holes" in wood become closed so are strengthened.

Unless you are planning a Viking send off, the sea cured wood seems unnecessary.
posted by jadepearl at 3:40 PM on January 4, 2009

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