While Loved Ones Wait

A Trappist casket is boxed for loading.

In the middle of the night, a driver hauling a 53-foot dry van pulls into a truckstop. Soon a hearse pulls up behind the trailer. The driver gets out of his cab and goes back to meet the funeral director. Together they open the trailer and load a casket into the hearse. The funeral director signs for it and disappears into the night. He is now ready for the morning’s funeral.

It’s a true story, according to a veteran casket hauler. A driver who makes his living hauling caskets is unlikely to be shocked if it happens to him one day.

“It hasn’t happened to me yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” says driver Tim Swartz of Greenville, Ohio. “And I’d be happy to do it.”

Casket delivery drivers are unfazed by their cargo, whether they be lighter cloth-covered ones, heavy bronzes weighing somewhere in the vicinity of 600 pounds or ornate wooden caskets.

“We don’t consider it strange,” says Swartz, 40. “We are providing something that is very important to people, something that they desperately need.”

But that doesn’t mean others won’t give them a few funny looks, and carrying a product with an empty space at its center, drivers can easily be questioned at America’s borders. “I was stopped once at the Canadian border and put in the inspection bay,” recalls Swartz. “The guy lifted the back and saw wall-to-wall caskets and just told me to shut it down and move on. The way they’re packed there’s no room to fit anything else in, and there’s only about two inches of room between the caskets on the top and the roof of the trailer.”

Swartz has been hauling caskets for 10 years for Elderlite Logistics, a company founded in 1989 in Richmond, Ind., by a casket company of the same name that could not find the right trucking company to haul its product. Today the company has a fleet of 50 Volvo VN tractors and 136 trailers, and is, says its CEO Michael Sparks, the largest contract hauler of caskets in the country, using almost all solo drivers. By volume the company competes with private fleets of major casket manufacturers, including the largest in the country, Batesville Casket of Indiana.

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“A buddy of mine came over here, so I came after and tried it and stayed,” Swartz says. “It’s mainly the company, but I enjoy what I do. It’s not eerie. Hauling these doesn’t bother me at all.”

Swartz reconsiders. “The only time it bothers me is when I’m unloading a small casket, one for a baby or a child. That really makes me think, ‘Here’s someone who never had a chance.'”

Another Elderlite driver, James Eddy, 52, says he does run into some other drivers who are uncertain of his load. “Some people get the eeries when they get around them. To us they are something a family really needs, and we have to get it to them.”

Casket trailers, like the Elderlite ones, commonly come with specially built “belly boxes” between the dollies and the tandem to allow the trailer, loaded inside with about 120 caskets, to haul 12 more caskets. Most deliveries go to distribution centers, which then go to local or regional funeral homes in the distributor’s smaller straight trucks.

But the belly box adds weight, as does a shelf inside the trailer to allow two layers of caskets, and it is not uncommon to have an 80,000-pound rig holding less than 40,000 pounds of caskets. Which means a 40,000-pound backhaul, since the box and shelf are permanent.

The caskets are usually handled by hand, and that’s heavy work, but the pay is above average for the industry.

“Upper body strength is a must,” says Eddy, a 20-year trucker, an over-the-road man since 1992 and a missile-delivering driver from the first Iraq war, Desert Storm. “Some of the caskets are stacked at a high level, and they can weigh 500 pounds or more. For those, you need four people. But there’s usually help when you get to a distribution center.”

The caskets are loaded on their ends, standing up. They are wrapped in their individual, thick padded blankets. Once the floor of the trailer is loaded, another layer of caskets is laid horizontally on top of them. In many Elderlite trailers a shelf is built in so that those on top lay on the shelf instead of on top of the lower level of caskets.

“The fitted blanket has a casket shape; it fits very tightly, and it usually doesn’t move,” says Eddy.

Specialist casket carriers don’t use a lot of packing around the caskets. Some use cardboard or a light wood frame, but there’s a potential problem with that method: the receiver has a lot of packing he has to dispose of. Blankets are lighter and, correctly used, adequately protective of the casket’s exterior.

Because they are shipped less-than-truckload, the traditional caskets crafted by the monks of New Melleray Abbey, near Dubuque, Iowa, are boxed. Their small company, Trappist Caskets, ships 20 to 25 caskets a week nationwide, says Sam Mulgrew, who is in charge of shipping, and a special box is built for each. Two inches of polystyrene foam is packed in to help keep the handcrafted caskets from damage.

“Occasionally someone will do something stupid at a loading dock, so we need the protection,” Mulgrew says. “The casket has been ordered by someone who doesn’t just want a casket but the one they selected, and they want it perfect. It’s very, very important to them, so we pack to make sure it doesn’t get damaged. They can be awkward to handle.”

The monks make traditional caskets they say “reflect the values of our monastic life.” They use wood that comes from their own sustainable, award-winning forest.

Mulgrew says the utmost precaution is taken at loading and unloading to prevent damage to the caskets.

“We don’t put them on pallets,” he says. “We prefer they don’t get moved that way. We’ve found over the years that there is more damage if a forklift is consistently used to handle them.”

That means some heavy lifting is required for the people involved, often including the driver.

Eddy is always expected to be part of the unloading procedure, but he also likes to be on hand for the loading. “I want to be there to see them loaded, to make sure they are tight,” he says. “You don’t want any room for them to move and knock into each other and maybe make the load less stable.”

The loading needs to take into account not only different weights, but also some different sizes and the fact that most caskets have been chosen by a family with special-order features. Something has been added to a casket, perhaps of brass or silver, and perhaps the top has been hand-painted with a special scene. These “extras” are on the exterior of the casket and exposed should the load shift.

“Packing them in tight, so tight there is no movement, is what protects them more than anything,” Eddy says. “They are really snug when they’re packed right. They’ll be facing in different directions to get the best ‘lock’ on the load when it’s done. It’s like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. Some are wood, some metal, and they weight differently so there is a lot of care goes into how they are arranged. Unloading is like taking the puzzle apart.”

Loaders also have to think about how the weight is distributed in the trailer. “I want heavier ones in the front of the trailer but not right in the nose,” Eddy says. “It’s a better ride for the caskets if I can get some weight up front. I also try to put the wood caskets together at one end. They are heavier, and you can get a lot of bounce. The trailers are all air-ride, but we still have to make sure they’re balanced for the best ride.”

A good unloading crew can empty a 53-foot van of its load of 110 or more caskets in about an hour and a half, says Eddy.

“The first one can be tricky. It’s horizontal, and there’s only an inch or two above it to the roof of the trailer. It’s heavy, and it’s sitting flat and has to be gotten off by hand. You kind of have to finger roll it out and walk it off its place on your hands, then get a hold of it,” says Eddy. “When we get the top layer off, we take the ones standing up off the trailer on a wheeled roll cart. Once they’re lifted off we put them on a dolly cart standing up to get them into the distributorship.”

Swartz faces other challenges at unloading on his deliveries to New York City two or three times a week. Swartz times his run into Brooklyn in the first hours of the morning to avoid the rush-hour traffic. He’s there before he needs to be and has to wait until 8 a.m. to start unloading. He’s done by 10 a.m. “A lot of times that costs $150 because I have to park on a sidewalk, and that’s what the tickets cost,” he says.

But Swartz has little choice. Because they are unloaded by hand, there is no dock. It’s also at this time of day that most casket distributorships have manual labor available to help unload his average load of about 25,000 pounds of caskets. The job needs anywhere from four to six men. Later in the day those same employees would be moving the caskets to funeral directors in vans, and Swartz would have no one to help him.

And what do dry vans built for caskets backhaul? Anything and everything that fits into a van, says Sparks. Sometimes that shelf will limit what can be hauled, but otherwise, Elderlite will carry what a broker is looking to move. High-value blanket-wrapped loads, like office furniture, are common loads for Elderlite.

Damaged caskets – whether they have been scarred en route, before loading or after unloading, become returns, as do poor-selling or out-of-date models. And here’s where the job can provide some unusual moments, says Sparks.

“There will be times when we turned up for a backhaul with a couple of caskets being brought back. There have been a couple of times when a backhaul shipper has looked into the van and seen caskets and freaked out. We’ve had a couple refuse to load after that. But to us hauling caskets is a normal job.”

But it’s not just caskets that make Elderlite trailers unusual.

When Elderlite drivers are asked for trailer numbers, they can confuse shippers and receivers more than freak them out. That’s because the company has no trailer numbers. All trailers are named after Disney characters, says Sparks. Why? The company originally had eight tractors, and called them Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. The idea stuck. So instead of a trailer number on the bill of lading for a load of caskets, the shipper might well be sending his casket on “Sleepy” or “Doc.”