City Paper is not for tourists
Last year, Glenda Freeman, of Robert O. Freeman Funeral Services Inc. on H Street NE, received a special request—a client needed help finding a casket large enough to hold a plus-size relative. A standard casket interior is 23 inches wide and 79 inches long, but she was in need of something substantially larger.
“I had to get it made—it was 38 inches [wide],” she says. “Then I had to go get a cargo van, because after a certain size, you can’t get in a hearse.”
The funeral-home owner says she is trying hard to keep up with the demands of burying city residents who have dimensions much larger than the average pine box. “Locally, they don’t carry anything over 33 inches—you have to call a casket company,” she says. “I don’t know why there aren’t more choices. Americans are more obese.”
Freeman and many others in the burial business say that the cost associated with burying an obese person in the District can be comparable to putting a down payment on a house. Funeral costs for a person of average build can range from a thrifty $2,000 to an opulent $10,000. Burying someone significantly larger—no matter how humble or extravagant the service—can tack on thousands of additional dollars.
When Sandy Brady’s 38-year-old son, Fredrick Brady, died in May of last year, the Springdale, Md., resident says he might have spent as much as $9,000 to bury his 5-foot, 600-pound son, had Freeman not given him a reduced rate. “After everything, it was about $4,500,” Brady says. “But it could have been a lot more expensive.”
Brady says his son needed not only an oversize casket and a special vault that the cemetery charged $600 for, but also extra money for grave opening and closing because Fredrick required two plots.
“I already had two burial plots,” says Brady. “If you’re not prepared…”
Funeral-home and cemetery owners say they are encountering more and more such cases. Randolph Horton, of Petworth’s R.N. Horton Co. Morticians Inc., says he sees about one case every other month that requires an oversize casket, and that obesity and poverty seem to go hand-in-hand. “In most cases, it’s also a hardship case—they have no insurance, and they’re struggling as it is,” he says.
Under the District’s Burial Assistance Program, run by the D.C. Department of Human Services’ Income Maintenance Administration, qualifying low-income residents using one of seven participating funeral homes can receive $800 in relief for burial costs, or $450 toward cremation, in cases where funeral expenses don’t exceed $2,000.
In 2000, the program increased that limit for obese decedents, so that families requiring oversize caskets can spend up to $3,000 and still qualify for assistance. The amount of aid remains the same.
Still, the cap is hardly high enough to account for costs. “If you’re talking about a 28-inch casket, that’s probably your $3,000 right there,” Freeman says. “Then you have 30-inch, 33-inch, 36-inch—then you have to get one handmade.”
Mike Fortune, owner of the Bowie-based Precious Memories Casket Co., says that people weighing up to 250 pounds can fit in a standard casket, but he has been receiving requests for much larger coffins. Fortune can commission a metal casket as large as 40 inches that can hold a body weighing from 350 to 600 pounds. Anything beyond that, he has crafted from wood.
“Beyond 40 inches, it’s too heavy, in metal, to lift,” Fortune says. “If you have a 300-pound casket with a 350-pound person in it, you need about 12 people to lift it.”
Kate Jesberg, an administrator at the Income Maintenance Administration, says she is unsure how many people have taken advantage of the Burial Assistance Program’s plus-size provision, but she imagines the number of takers has been negligible. “We don’t maintain any formal statistics on that,” she says. “Still, the program staff says that the issue rarely arises.”
Large-size funeral costs don’t come up, in part, because some of the funeral-home operators who work with the assistance program haven’t heard of the allowance for the oversized. The regulations weren’t published until last month, says Human Services spokesperson Debra Daniels.
“I didn’t know that,” says Julia Marshall, proprietor of the Marshall’s Funeral Homes in both Petworth and Suitland, Md. “That would’ve been helpful. I’ve had a couple of families that could have used that.”
Joseph B. Jenkins, owner of the Johnson and Jenkins Funeral Home, was also in the dark about the provision. “It was told to me that for a burial, you receive $800 for a service no more than $2,000—and direct cremation is $450,” he says. Jenkins said that he would have “certainly” put the clause to use had he been aware of it—he estimates that 10 percent of his business involves plus-size burials.
Funeral homes that are not on the burial-assistance provider list say that they have to try that much harder to provide affordable burials for their largest clients. Horton says that most of the extra costs come in at the cemetery—things such as grave and vault opening and closing are much more expensive where a large person is concerned. But the only extra cost he passes on to his clients is that of the larger casket.
“If $867.50 is the standard, and an oversize is $1,200, I’d charge them the difference. We’ll go ahead with the service with no additional service charges—that’s just me,” Horton says.
Horton says that he is well-equipped to handle the needs of the overweight. If he receives a large-size corpse, he often has to make special arrangements for transport and holds services for the departed in his own chapel, to avoid having to move an extremely heavy oversize casket from place to place.
“I’ve heard of funeral homes that had to rent a U-Haul,” Horton says. “I’ve heard of a case where a person died and they had to take him out of a window—had to have the fire department help get him out….We will do anything within reason.”
Fortune also says that catering to the widening of Washington is just a part of his job description. “People are getting bigger,” Fortune says. “And when they die, they’re not losing too much more weight.” CP