Was this a pricey funeral?

The average cost of traditional funerals in the U. S. – metal casket, funeral clothing, embalming, use of a funeral home, hearse and pallbearers, etc. – is about $7,000, not including a burial plot. That cost can run into tens of thousands of dollars depending on the type of casket chosen and other options. Some have argued that these costs are excessive, and that the bereaved can save a great deal of money by dispensing with pricey caskets and going back to the “simpler” arrangements of several generations before.

A detailed cost breakdown of a 1927 funeral directed by Samuel J. Wilson and Son of Milton may shed some light on the cost of a simple funeral 90 years ago.

Invoice for funeral expenses from S. J. Wilson & Son to the Nathan H. Williams family (Courtesy Milton Historical Society)

The above invoice was for the funeral expenses of Nathan H. Williams (1852 – 1927), a retired sawmill operator and timber dealer who passed away after a long illness. The funeral was held at his home, in which he had lived since the day he was born, and he was interred at Zion Cemetery, leaving a widow and five adult children.

At $125, the most expensive item on the invoice was the casket; whether it was wood or metal is not stated, but its fittings and lining were not what you would call plain. Burial clothing for the deceased totaled $36, and included patent leather slippers, stockings, suit, shirt, collar, tie, and underwear. Embalming and other preparation of the body cost $15. Lastly, a cement vault (lining) was installed at the grave site for $35. No mention is made of a hearse, so presumably the family made its own arrangements to transport the remains to the cemetery from the home. Lastly, by paying in full within 30 days, the widow received a 5% discount ($6.25) on the cost of the casket, for a total of $204.75. It is unclear whether the deduction of $14.31 represented an additional discount, a deposit, or some other form of prepayment. The cost of a headstone was not included either; the family may have arranged for that through another party.

In today’s dollars, the cost of the Williams funeral would be approximately $2,725, which does not include the burial plot, transportation, use of a funeral home for the viewing, flowers, mass cards and other memorabilia, or headstone. However, a direct comparison is somewhat misleading. Looking at an itemized list of expenses for an actual funeral in 2005, adjusted for inflation, the same embalming, preparation, and dressing services, plus a similar casket, cost $6,000. In 1927, the cost of the casket represented 61% of the total funeral expense. In the more recent funeral the cost of the casket (at $5,125) represented 85% of the total expense.

Even if it were possible to conduct a funeral in one’s home today, with the embalming and dressing services furnished by the funeral director, and transporting the casket and remains to a cemetery in the back of one’s pickup truck or a van – something that may not be permitted in many cities – the cost of a casket similar to the one in which Nathan Williams was interred would inflate the expense disproportionately. Overall, even a simple funeral’s costs outpaced inflation by quite a margin. None of this takes into account the cost of a burial plot and headstone in 1927, for which I do not have figures available; a burial plot in an urban cemetery can run $5,000 or more, and a granite headstone starts at over $600.

On a more positive note, active dues-paying membership in one of Milton’s fraternal organizations such as the Junior Order of United American Mechanics or the Improved Order of Red Men would confer a death benefit of $250, which would have covered the cost of the Nathan Williams funeral completely.

S. J. Wilson’s New Building, ca. 1910; the proprietor is standing at the corner of Front and Federal Streets.

 

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Samuel J. Wilson in 1921

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