April 20, 2005

Obesity Creates Need for Oversized Caskets

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When the funeral director saw the fat man in the small town, they engaged in some friendly banter about death. "You'd tell him, 'You're going to have to go on a diet. You've got to lose some of that weight," said John C. Rudder, owner of Rudder Funeral Home in Scottsboro.

"And he'd say 'Yeah, I know, you ain't got a box big enough to fit me.' ""And we didn't," Rudder said.

The solution when the man died: Order an oversized casket.

With an increasing number of Americans considered obese - including many in Alabama - funeral directors have been dealing with a big problem. Their caskets were not large enough.

Enter companies like Southern Heritage Casket Co. in Oxford, about 60 miles east of Birmingham. It's one of many firms across the nation that are pumping up the size of caskets to meet the needs of increasingly large people.

Last fall, the health advocacy group Trust for America's Health ranked Alabama the most obese state in the nation. Twenty-eight percent of adults in the state were classified as obese.

An additional 35 percent of adults 18 and older are overweight in Alabama, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Obesity causes about 400,000 deaths in the United States every year, according to Trust for America's Health. It's poised to overtake tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death.

And handling funeral arrangements for an obese person can create additional stress for the family and for the funeral professionals involved.

For years, caskets were built with a standard inside shoulder width of 22 inches to 24 inches, said Jeff Cheek, president of the Southern Heritage, which only makes steel caskets. Now, the company builds standard caskets with widths up to 26 inches and a line of oversized caskets with interior widths from 28 inches to 44 inches.

The caskets are welded together, sanded and painted at Southern's Heritage's plant in Oxford.

"It was almost unheard of to sell stuff this big 10 or 15 years ago," Cheek said.

Cheek, 45, and his father, Arvel Cheek, left another casket company to start Southern Heritage in the 1980s. They started as specialists in children's caskets, which they still make in small quantities.

Jeff Cheek said the company started making oversized caskets in the mid-1980s and began offering the 40- to 44-inch caskets only about two years ago. Southern Heritage had to buy new paint-drying ovens to accommodate the larger size and is planning for more retrofitting of the factory to streamline the process.

Oversized caskets now account for about 20 percent of the company's sales, Jeff Cheek said. The biggest caskets still make up a small proportion of the roughly 50 caskets the company makes per day.

"The 40s and above is probably just now getting to the point that it's one a day," he said.

He said said Southern Heritage has been able to get ahead of other casket companies by offering a selection of oversized styles instead of big, plain boxes. Now the company's catalog offers big caskets in a variety of colors and decorations.

"I realize that everything that leaves here goes to someone who has lost a loved one," he said. "That was the main thought behind us expanding the selection on the big ones. Why is it if someone's obese that they're not entitled to options like everyone else?"

The company ships its caskets throughout the South and to Ohio and Oklahoma. Jeff Cheek said he doesn't notice geographical differences in demand for oversized caskets, but said demand spikes during periods of extreme hot and cold that strain the bodies of obese people.

"It's all over. We have an epidemic," he said. "I can't be judgmental. I'd like to be 25 pounds lighter than I am. I'm sure anyone who's overweight would rather not be that way."

Rudder, the funeral director in Scottsboro, described what happened when the obese man he used to joke with died in September from congestive heart failure. Rudder said the 700-pound man was to be put in an above-ground mausoleum with his parents.

"This fellow had gotten so large that the casket that he had to accommodate his size didn't fit inside the mausoleum," he said. The man was buried outside.

There can be other logistical problems when an extremely large person dies - a large casket might not fit into the hearse or might not be able to fit into a chapel.

Costs can be higher, too. When an obese man died in July 2004, his family paid $3,250 for his casket alone, $600 more than it would have cost for a regular casket, Rudder said.

Rudder said there is additional demand for oversized caskets because of an increasing number of people who are simply large, not overweight.

"My youngest son is 6-feet-4 and will weigh 250 pounds," he said. "And he's a big boy. He really won't fit inside a standard size casket. But you don't think of him of being obese. He's big."

Bigger caskets affect cemeteries, too.

Mike Hauser is marketing director of the Ridout's funeral homes and cemeteries in the Birmingham area. He said newer parts of the company's cemeteries now are laid out with wider spaces for graves to accommodate larger bodies and for the use of vaults - containers that go around the bodies and prevent soil settling.

In the case of an extremely large casket and vault, a family that purchased a family plot might simply allow the grave to take up two spaces rather than one, he said.

In the meantime, Rudder and other funeral directors are asking for bigger caskets.

"For the last several years, whenever we can get anybody to listen to us, we've been telling the casket manufacturers that they need to give us caskets to accommodate these people where they don't look like they're a cork in a bottle," he said.

The casket companies have responded.

Last fall, Indiana-based Batesville Casket Co., one of the nation's largest casketmakers, introduced 13 new oversized models and introduced the Dimensions brand. It now offers a total of 53 oversized models, company spokesman Joe Weigel said.

And Lynn, Ind.-based Goliath Casket Co. has continued to increase the size of its offerings.

"We make very large oversize caskets. Oversized is kind of an understatement. They're 'supersized,' to coin a famous term," said Keith Davis, who owns the company with his wife, Julane Davis.

Sales have doubled in the last month, he said. The company could sell 800 caskets this year, and it recently rolled out a 52-inch casket.

"That is a little bit wider than a standard pickup bed size," he said.

"The 44-inch, 48-inch, 52-inch are for body weights between 650 and 1,200 pounds. There are people that large, believe it or not," he said.

There are extra supports to make sure the weight doesn't cause the casket to break.


Information from: Birmingham Post-Herald