COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP — The nation’s sour economy has more people looking for less-expensive burials, a trend that has cut into the business of one local company.
Miller Berry and Sons on Robbinstown Road in the township’s Port Norris section is one of the last two independent casket mattress companies left in the United States.
The company turned out as many as 250,000 of those mattresses — in both regular and extra-large sizes — annually at the peak of production about a decade ago, said its president, Dean Berry. Richard Nixon, Arthur Ashe and Jackie Onassis rest on Miller Berry and Sons mattresses, he said.
But Berry said the company is now producing about 90,000 casket mattresses annually. The decrease is caused by more people turning to less costly cremations over more expensive traditional burials, he said.
About 41 percent of all funerals in 2010 involved cremations, according to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association. That figure is up from 26 percent in 2000, and represents a huge increase from the 4 percent of people who opted for cremations in 1960, the statistics show.
The association set the average cost of a traditional funeral at $6,560 for 2009. Estimates vary widely on the cost of cremations, with the figures running between $495 and $3,500.
“It’s a lot cheaper to be cremated,” said Barbara Moore, the company’s secretary-treasurer.
Along with a decrease in production, Berry said there’s also been a decrease in workers. The firm now employs about 9 people, down from the 25 people who used to work there, he said.
All of this does not mean Miller Berry and Sons plans to shutter the business that began in 1968 when the Berry family looked for something to supplement income from its seasonal salt hay operation. The company actually used salt hay to stuff its mattresses, something that resulted in a big problem during the summer, Berry said.
“There were bugs,” Berry said, adding that did not particularly please funeral directors.
The company is developing new markets in Canada, where it is supplying the brackets used in the cranking mechanism that allows funeral directors to raise and lower casket mattresses, Berry said.
The mattresses are actually metal frames that contain a fiber pad. Those pads replaced a product called excelsior, a blend of pine wood fibers the company used for about a decade. The finished products are sold directly to casket manufacturers.
A regular, 20-inch-wide mattress is $16, Moore said. Larger mattresses, which come with sturdier frames and the extra cranking mechanisms needed to raise and lower heavier dead bodies, cost $34.50, she said.
The company can even add a special covering to prevent bodily fluids from leaking into the mattress.
“We pretty much cater to what they want,” Berry said.
Funeral homes cover the mattresses in the fabric picked by the customer.
“You never see our product,” Berry said.
Berry said the company is always looking for new ways to improve its product. Part of that involves using an old casket to experiment with improved cranking systems and mattress pads.
The company’s presence also spawned at least one new business venture.
Berry said the owners of a soybean farm at the end of Robbinsville Road needed to generate some more cash. The owners started a machine shop and now supply parts for the casket mattress cranking system, he said.
“They come just about every morning and ask what we need,” he said.
Moore said both companies are near a firm in nearby Haleyville that makes burial vaults. There’s also a funeral home close by, she said.
The grouping of those end-of-life businesses makes the section of Cumberland County a little different, she said.
“We’re all kind of connected with death,” Moore said.
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