Standing on end, it's an elegant bookshelf. A commanding wine rack. Or a coffee table. For those who view life and the hereafter with a sense of, er...abandon, it serves, modified, as a gun rack.


"They're coffins. Receptacles for a dead body. They are not caskets," says the Rev. William A. Wendt, deliberately stamping out each word. "A "casket" is what one uses to hold valuable jewels. And in that sense, you can see how it would be quickly absorbed by the industry as an euphemism."

"industry" in this case being funerary practice, which first attracted Wendt's scrutiny in 1973 and led him to co-found the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society. Wendt, his group and others like it want to demystify the death ceremony, along with better educating people )on costs and options). Burial societies stress the importance of pre-need counseling, i.e., making final arrangements before they have to be final. Membership in the St. Francis Society costs $4, but contributions have been as high as $500.

"People are joining burial societies because they have the feeling that they'll be dumped on unless they're protected," said Wendt, well-known for his activist candor. "Also, obviously, taking care of one's funeral ahead of time spares the family much grief. Some stress is removed.

"And with most of us, there's this feeling that we've lost ownership of what's going to happen to us after death. In America, we've abdicated responsibility from family and church to the funeral industry. They tell us what is "appropriate." Clown-like make-up, brand new clothes. In effect, how to grieve while perpetuating the idea that that person isn't really dead at all."

Societies vary in tone and intensity from city to city, but most seem to favor less formal funerals and accoutrements, like Wendt's group, which leans to simple pine boxes, and the "dust-to-dust" theory.

Though cost-cutting is one aim, that is not the only reason for the plain coffin. "What we would like to have is a re-involvement of the family and community...have the bereaved take part in the preparation of the funeral." It is part of the separation process and a channel for directing grief.

To aid this process, Wendt has made available pre-packaged coffin kits (about $185), as well as plans for building them. He encourages personal art to decorate the coffins. Many of the hand-painted models have become objets d'art, he added, and now serve as home or office accessories for some of the more lighthearted members.

Elizabeth Clemmer, executive director of the volunteer-run Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies in Washington, defines her group as "more consumer-oriented." As the umbrella clearinghouse for 160 national chapters, her group's job is to promote options through education.

"People just can't bear the thought, in their grief, of "shopping" for a funeral. So, they entrust themselves to the funeral director, with the feeling, "He won't take advantage of me." Well, he will. Unfortunately, people will buy a sweater for $20 with more knowledge than a funeral for thousands."

A national issue for her group is to seek change in existing Social Security and Veteran's Administration death benefits.

"Most people don't know, for instance, that this money cannot be paid directly to families. They must submit the undertaker's bill, then the government pays the bill. This is nothing more than a funeral director's subsidy."

Said Clarence W. Lee, president of the Funeral Directors Association of Metropolitan Washington and a mortician since 1971: "Her statement is not entirely correct. Social Security death benefits can be paid directly to the spouse.

"The VA payment does exactly what it's set up to do. This is something Congress put into effect. I'm sure if people didn't want it, the death benefit would have been dropped before now."

A better approach, maintains Clemmer, would be direct payment to members of the family to use for legal and burial fees, phone calls, food.

"Informed consumers," said Clemmer, probably wouldn't feel the way one woman did, who responded to a questionnaire sent out by her group: "She expressed great satisfaction with the mortician. He was "patient" when he discovered and explained to her that her husband had to be embalmed not only once - but twice."

Burial society group membership usually features price breaks: coffin, preparation, standard service for those who want it. Wendt says the "average" cost of Washington burial is $2,500, but advises his society that "$1,200 is more reasonable." (And obtainable, through several cooperating citywide funeral homes.) Burial site is extra.

Burial societies can have political clout, Clemmer said. A Pennsylvania group member was quoted a price of $1,800 for a simple Jewish Orthodox service "that probably didn't even include nails for the coffin." He complained to the mortician and mentioned the burial society. The cost became $600.

As with most, the Memorial Society of Metropolitan Washington provides its members with monthly mailings and ongoing counseling service. Memorial Society member Joan Oehser, who joined the group as a result of her job with the American Association of Retired Person, said her group "doesn't want to advertise who the participating morticians are because of possible recriminations within the industry. We have a very satisfactory relationship. Why spoil it?"

Clemmer agreed.

"One officer of a state trade association said that if he found out one of his members was cooperating, he would no longer loan equipment or hearses - a standard practice."

"We've had these societies for years and years locally," said mortician Lee. "I've never heard anyone make a remark like that."

Don De Vol, past president of Washington funeral directors and a mortician for 35 years, said he believes burial society members are "wasting their money."

"They can probably get a funeral director who'll go along with a below-minimum price quote, but it's likely not quality services. The casket may have damage or be soiled."

One can, says De Vol, get quality goods at a reasonable price by "going in with your mind set, then sticking to it." That is, avoiding sales pressure.

The St. Francis burial group, Wendt stresses, does not have as its chief aim criticism of the industry. Instead, the focus is on letting its 4,000 members from around the country know such things as:

Embalming, at about $150, is not required except in unusual cases or death by plague.

Instant removal of the deceased is not required by hospitals.

Innovative services, such as "dignified, liturgical burial" for non-church-affiliated families, is a society specialty. It can serve as a go-between for indigent families, such as in a recent case when a bereaved woman was stopped at the burial site of her two children, because no payment arrangements for the plots had been made. Wendt's group paid.

St. Francis members, for contributions which have ranged from $16 to $500, also receive bereavement counseling and help with life-threatening illness. High-school courses in "death education" also are offered.

Says Molly Whitehouse, a society volunteer officer:

"What we want to do is open up a safe place to look at our own death and that of family, and by doing that, take the scare value out of it." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. Vienna Cobb Anderson, assistant rector of St. Alban's Episcopal Church, with her decorated coffin; by Larry Morris