The cheap casket is fine. Really.
A low-end metal casket at a funeral home might cost around $1000 or slightly less. It will do the job, and most likely, at the service, the appearance of the casket will go unnoticed. People will remember the color, was it open or closed, and how well the body, clothes, appearance and flowers complimented the allover appearance of the casket, but most likely they will not recall that the casket had stationary handles rather than the swing-bar type, or that the interior was twill and not velvet.
Wood often costs more than metal, due to particular woods being hard to find or hard to work with. Prices on a wood casket will vary depending on whether it’s solid or wood veneer. Other price variations, for both wood and metal, are due to special features, such as the type of handle and type of interior. Some caskets have front and end handles, some only side handles. Swing bar handles cost more than stationary handles, and are slightly easier to lift, but if you have six pallbearers they most likely won’t notice. It is often a hassle to deal with a casket that doesn’t have end handles, but usually only in cases where it’s one or two funeral directors and no pallbearers.
There is another option, which rarely looks good and doesn’t seem worth it; the cloth-covered fiberboard. It’s what it sounds like; hard cardboard covered with a cloth resembling an old, scratchy blanket. I have seen them priced retail between $500 and $1000. If you can spend $1000, just get a cheap metal casket and it will look a lot better.
Most caskets have a cotton or twill interior, possibly draped in some sort of design on the inside cap panel. Cheaper caskets might have a paper printed design that will, on first glance, look like cloth. Expensive caskets might have velvet, sometimes quilted, or have custom embroidery.
Another more expensive – and in my opinion, worthwhile – feature is the ability to manipulate the head and foot ends of the casket. Nearly all caskets will provide the option of raising and lowering the bed, but some are able to tilt the head end slightly to the right or left. If you buy a very low-end wooden casket, the “plain pine box,” most likely there will be no metal frame that can raise or lower, which makes the casket not ideal for viewing purposes. (This casket is usually sold to religious groups that do not traditionally view their dead. If you are interested in something like this, ask for a “Jewish” or “kosher” casket; they can remove the Star of David if you are not Jewish.)
Other neat features in higher-end caskets are a “memory drawer,” a pull-out drawer in one of the casket panels that can often be left open during the ceremony and can hold photos, letters or personal items; and a small screw-in glass tube in the foot end of the casket that holds a slip of paper with details about the deceased and the funeral home…in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster that destroys the cemetery and unearths caskets.
People often complain about high casket prices or high markups. Nearly every product you buy retail will have a markup of some sort, like soda or shoes. It’s common for a funeral home’s retail price to be 2 to 3 times higher than the wholesale price. Some funeral homes only add a few hundred dollars to the wholesale price. Caskets from Costco or Walmart are the same quality as what you can find in a funeral home, though not necessarily cheaper than a low-cost funeral home.
Some funeral homes give their directors bonuses for selling burial packages containing certain caskets, but I am not aware of any place that gives a commission or percentage to the funeral director. When I worked for SCI, I got a bonus of around $75 for selling a burial package with a casket costing in the $4000 range.
Many families ask if they can bury in a cremation casket, since cremation caskets often look like inexpensive wooden caskets. This is almost never allowed by the cemetery, because most often the casket will not have handles and the bottom will not support the weight of the body. The casket is meant to be pushed into an oven, not carried.
A family always has the option of building their own casket, for burial or cremation, and a funeral home is not allowed to charge bogus “inspection fees” for these caskets. They are allowed to reject a casket if there are no handles for easy transport, or if it is otherwise shoddy. Also, if this is something you want to do, you will need to get the dimensions of the grave liner or vault and grave space. I have seen homemade caskets that barely fit in the grave when it was time for burial. Homemade cremation caskets are easier, since literally a large sturdy cardboard box will work. Often people will paint and decorate it in a meaningful way and it will look very nice. Another family just brought in a large box from a piece of furniture; this was acceptable.
Finally, if the deceased is a large person – around the 300-lb range – be prepared to buy an oversize casket. Oversize caskets don’t always have as wide of a selection, but you can usually find a few different wood options or a couple of colors of metal. Unfortunately, the purchase of an oversize casket often necessitates the purchase of an oversize vault and even a second grave space, depending on how many inches oversize a person is. (We measure across the shoulders and across the elbows.) It’s worth it to call around to different cemeteries to see what sort of oversize caskets they can accommodate without having to charge extra for another grave.
If you can only afford a casket you don’t like and aren’t happy with your choice, and aren’t able to build your own, you can use blankets and other personal items to dress up a less-pretty casket. A blanket draped over the closed end – perhaps a favorite blanket or treasured item of clothing – along with some well-placed portraits on easel stands and flower arrangements, will probably draw the attention away from the casket itself. You can display a book or stuffed animal in the hands of the deceased, several photos or other items around them, and perhaps more pictures or religious items in the cap panel. The body can be surrounded by flowers or letters in the casket, if you don’t like the interior. I suggest this to every family, even non-viewing cremation families.
I see nothing wrong with spending as much or as little as you can on the casket. I don’t see expensive caskets as any more wasteful than an expensive wedding dress, or an expensive dinner. Buy what you want. Buy what you like and what you think looks good. If you feel you might be prone to emotional overspending, bring a friend or someone else along with you to the arrangement. Yes, the expensive casket is going in the ground and no one will see it again, but the expensive wedding dress may very well be burned in a trash can after a 7-month marriage, and where do you think that expensive dinner is going to end up the next day?