Charles C. Kirkpatrick replaced the lid of the Eternal Rest Bed Vault, which was resting on the floor of the dimly lit chapel in the funeral home, and then stood on it.
"Look," he said, "I weigh 205 pounds. You could line up men my size the whole length of it and nothing would happen. You can't do that to a casket."
The Eternal Rest Bed Vault, of which Kirkpatrick is the sole distributor in Maryland and Virginia, is a sort of plastic casket that he claims reduces the cost of burial by eliminating the need for both a casket and a protective vault.
It has also triggered the first suit brought by the state under its 1974 antitrust law. The state alleged the Tide-water Funeral Directors association has conspired to prevent competitors, such as Kirkpatricks, from selling the vaults by refusing to bury people in them.
The lawsuit is the latest evidence of a minor war that Kirkpatrick said has been going on between professional cemetery owners - more commonly known as Perpetual Care or Memorial Gardens - and the funeral directors.
"Funeral homes used to be the only ones selling memorials and vaults," said Kirkpatrick, who is the president of both the 80-acre Rosewood Memorial Park and the 50-acre Princes Anne Memorial Park. "Now we do, and then this product comes along that replaces two products."
Richard Brydges, attorney of the Tidewater Funeral Diretors Association, denied that his clients have onspired to keep the Eternal Rest Bed Vault from being sold. Although now "service" the vault, such as the likelihood of its floating up in the high water table area of Tidewater, could be satisfied.
In a separate legal action, the association has asked that Kirkpatrick be stopped from requiring that funeral homes buy (regular) vaults from his cemetery if a person is being burried there.
"It's a whole bucket of worms," Brydes said.
Kirkpatrick started selling the vaults last October; since then, he said between 400 and 500 have been sold and seven persons have been buried in them. Shortly after he and his salesmen started selling them, the funeral director's group began placing advertisements in local newspapers warning potential purchasers to check with "your locla funeral director to see if he will service the product."
Kirkpatrick fired back with a full-page ad about the vault that included the warning: "Some funeral directors will not service the Eternal Rest Bed Vault and that is understandable. They may be disturbed over the opportunity they lost to sell a casket and a vault."
He followed that up with another full-page ad about the one funeral home that will service the vault, which he happens to be president of. Currently, only people who purchase burial lots from him can buy the eternal beds.
The object of this controversy is a cylindrical two-piece container made of light brown material called "styron 475," which weighs about 60 pounds and can hold a body as large as 300 pounds. It costs $795, not including other funeral services like embalming. The idea behind it is that instead of being buried in a casket, which is placed in a vault, and then in the groun, the body is placed in the Eternal Rest Vault Bed and that is put directly into the ground by itself.
Most cemeteries require a vault because as time passes both the body and the casket disintegrate and the ground above them is weakened, opening who fall through and lawsuits for the cemetery or memorial garden. State law does not require the use of a vault, however.
"A cemetery requires a vault so that you can be assured that when you step on a spot you're not going to fall through and break your leg," Kirkpatrick explained, "With elderly people their bones break easily anyway and they're the ones who frequent the cemeteries . . ."
The Eternal Rest Vault Bed has the added advantage of being even more resistant to the elements than even the most expensive coffin, Kirkpatrick said. The advertisement said it is "impervious to water, will not rust, oxidize or corrode in any way whatever."
"People have different desires depending on how they feel about deceased," said Kirkpatrick, who drives a Mercedes-Benz with a telephone in it. "(With the new vault) they can be assured that elements in the ground are not interfering with that loved one."
The cheapest vault, a cement liner, runs about $160 at Kirkpatrick's Funeral Home. Add to that the cheapest coffin, a cloth covered affair at $225, and the funeral home charges of $535, and the least expensive burial costs $920, excluding the cost of the lot. Using an Eternal Rest Vault Bed, the cost would be $1,330. But using a "good" coffin, which can run from $395 to $2,305, and a traditional vault, costing between $300 and $700, the savings can be considerable.
To maintain in traditional funeral look, the Eternal Rest Bed Vault is placed like a tray in a renovated casket that Kirkpatrick calls a catafalque. To outward appearances, the combination looks just like any other open casket. After the public viewing of the body, the service and graveside ceremony, the bottom half of the bed is taken out of the catafalque put back in the hearse and the vault lowered into the ground. This is usually done after the relatives and friends have gone.
Brydges said the vault's main detraction is that the body is exposed at the gravesite while the bed, or "minisubmarine" as he calls it, is taken out of the catafalque, sealed and then buried. He said this is not only distasteful, but makes the funeral director liable for lawsuits incases where the deceased or the family have specifically requested that the body not be exposed.
"I wouldn't want my wife or mother lying out there while five or six gravediggers are messing around trying to get that lid on," he said.
The state is asking the association be fined $100,000 for each alleged violation of the law.