Updated: March 27, 2014 6:09AM
“What are the odds in a funeral home going broke when you have a business that everybody on Earth needs? If you can’t make that work, its got to be you, right? And yet, I don’t know. What do you do when people don’t die?”
— Bill Murray, from the film “Get Low” (2009)
People are dying to do business with Michael Gozdecki. He sells caskets for a living. Our interview took place at Elmwood Casket & Monument Sales, located on the northwest corner of U.S. 30 and Cline Avenue.
He is president of the company and also has a showroom in Hammond at 1413 169th St.
Gozdecki, 43, lives in Munster with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 12-year-old daughter.
“St. Thomas More Grade School, Munster High School and St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., near Green Bay. I earned a degree in business administration there,” he said.
Did you play sports in school?
“I was in Little League for about nine years and varsity golf for three years at Munster High. I was a left-handed baseball player, but I golf right-handed. I’m ambidextrous when playing bocce ball.”
How long have you been in the business?
“Well, I started working at Elmwood Cemetery in Hammond when I was 16. I was cutting grass, pulling weeds, trimming bushes, weed whacking and painting half-mile long fence lines.
“After a while, I started working full-time for them. I became in charge of operations when I was about 25. We were just a cemetery back then. I started the monument business in ‘91.”
Tell me more.
“In ‘94, my grandma died. I went with my mom to do my grandma’s arrangements. I felt the casket I chose from the funeral home was overpriced. That’s when I decided to research selling caskets on a wholesale basis. Funeral home markup on a casket can be anywhere from 300 to 600 percent.
You sell to funeral homes and individual families alike.
“Correct. I began selling caskets to families in February of 2000. We expanded to this site in August of 2000. Due to our ability to buy in bulk, our prices have remained relatively unchanged for years.”
Can you give me some ballpark figures?
“A 20-gauge, non-gasket, metal casket is $599 plus tax. Sealed caskets start at $799. The 18-gauge start at $1,099. The woods start at $1,299. All of our caskets, whether steel or wood, are American-made.”
What’s the most expensive casket you sell?
“We offer a solid bronze casket with a velvet-glass interior and 24-karat gold. It runs about $25,000. That’s like the one Michael Jackson is buried in. If you talk to Michael’s family, they probably paid about $40,000 for it. They were buying the name brand.”
Mike, I don’t get it. I can’t see paying all that money whether you’re rich or poor. To each their own, I suppose.
“Like I said, the wholesalers’ markup is fairly stable. When the coffin gets to the funeral home, that’s where the big margin’s at. Prior to ‘94, you couldn’t buy a casket except from a funeral home. There were no other options. In Lake County, we’re about half of what a funeral home will charge.
“The Federal Trade Commission got involved and stated that consumers have a right to purchase their funeral goods and merchandise outside of the funeral home without penalty.”
Is it from one particular company that you buy your caskets?
“We buy from a number of manufacturers. We do not buy from ‘the big three.’”
The big three?
“Batesville, York and Aurora. All three of those manufacturers are located in Indiana. They control 70 percent of the casket market in the country.
I can’t believe the artwork on these tombstones you have on display.
“It’s all done by laser. They used to etch them by hand.”
“Cremation is on a steep rise. In Indiana, it’s like 40 percent. The reason for that is funeral homes are almost pricing themselves out of the family budget. Cremation is cheaper because you’re cutting out the cemetery operation. Interment fees alone can be about $2,500.”
Not all, but a good portion of people have a wake or showing before they are cremated.
“For some, the viewing is closure.”
Personally, I’d want to be cremated without being shown in an open casket. A small memorial service, maybe.
“Casket rentals are like $1,200 to $1,500. You can buy a cremation casket cheaper from us than you can rent one.”
“A funeral home will rent a casket 10 or 20 times before it becomes too damaged to use.”
Let’s see here, $1,500 times 20 comes out to $30,000. Wow, what a money-maker. You not only sell caskets, cremation urns, hand-cast bronze plaques and monuments, but mausoleums as well. How much for that big one in the photograph?
“About $1.8 million.”
Mike, I think I’ll have my ashes tossed off the river bridge at Ramsey’s Landing. Whatever’s left of me can meander downstream toward Kankakee, where mother gave birth to me.
If at all possible, Gozdecki told me people should take care of their own arrangements in writing. He witnesses ugly family feuds nearly every week because surviving relatives cannot agree on what kind of casket or urn their loved ones should be laid to rest in.
For more information, call 844-7077 or 844-7009.