The Very Big Sleep

The Goliath Casket company is keeping pace with an expanding funeral business

Put your hand on the ground here, dig in with your fingers and you can feel the urgent up-and-down bustle of the land, the fertility so intense the beans and corn shoot into the air and the hogs and cattle take on daily bulk. The food grows so fast it’s picked and processed and sold and eaten almost overnight, and the town streets are scattered with the tubes and wrappers from the Big Boys and Belly Busters, sugar and grease then falling back into the land at the town dump.

Lynn, Indiana, is a half-agricultural, half-industrial town in flat, Midwest America. What locals call the Heartland. After the Second World War, some veterans returned to Lynn not to farm, but to establish and operate casket companies (funeral directors dislike the term coffin). And one day in 1985, a man named Forrest Davis quit his job as a welder to pursue a notion, perhaps provoked by the advancing waistlines and descending jowls around him. “Boys,” he said, “I’m going to go home and build oversized caskets you would be proud to put your mother in.”

It was the kind of moment Americans like to think of as specifically American: an emerging social change that opened up space for ingenuity, of the particular handyman-breadboard-Orville-and-Wilbur kind. In 1971, 14 percent of all Americans were obese; now the figure has jumped to more than 30 percent. The technology at the Goliath Casket Company, the firm Forrest Davis started, has been refined over the decades to meet the specific challenges of the American jumbo-sized corpse and is now shipping up to 800 oversized caskets each year. Goliath is small, agile, innovative America moving to meet the new and expanding needs of elephantine, clogged-arteries America.

Forrest’s son Keith, who took over after his father died in 1998, is a strong, capable-looking man. He and his four employees operate Goliath Casket in a concrete-floored facility the size of a large used-car showroom out behind the family farmhouse. There is a family feeling to the place: the woman who folds the plush for the interior of the boxes is married to the man who bends the metal used to construct the oversized models.

Davis does not seem impelled by a vision exactly, but instead seems struck by the unfolding complexities of the oversized-casket business, the way it fits into evolving America, and the pleasing nature of the solutions his team has found to meet exceptional problems.

“It is very important,” he says. “It is very, very important that the bottom of an oversized casket not give. We have never had an accident. We have heard of some bad ones. One at the funeral home—well, most body hoists are rated 400 to 500 pounds. That wasn’t enough. The body fell into the casket face first. Then, in another case, the funeral home misjudged the size of the body. The sides of the casket buckled and they couldn’t get the body out. Last year, in Ohio, they couldn’t get the lid closed.”

There is no malice in Davis. He does not begrudge the larger volume of caskets shipped by the Indiana factories near his, and he most certainly does not laugh at the disasters he hears about—the stories of flattened, mutilated giants tipped slowly out of buckling, insufficient boxes. Or whipped and despairing pallbearers having to resort to the use of heavy equipment in order to move a 1,000-pound body and its 250-pound casket.

“What about technology?” I ask him.

“Cremation, you mean?” Davis’s kind face moves slowly from side to side. “No, there’s a technological limit here. Certainly, cremation is becoming more popular, 70 percent in some areas, 20 percent here. But when you get to the bigger bodies . . . there is a high fuel problem. Grease fires. The grease comes out and burns the crematorium down.”

The size of the product imposes constraints on workmanship. “There are truss wires to make sure of the integrity of the base. We use a little wood in the interior, but there’s no oversized wood casket. It would be just too labour-intensive, you’d need to know six months in advance.”

Goliath also produces custom work for clients with special needs. And stacked somewhere along the side of the building is a monumental casket, Goliath’s largest. I don’t want to put Davis to any trouble, but he can’t wait to show me his treasure.

At 132 centimetres wide and 48 centimetres deep, it is gigantic, colossal, epic. It has its own echo and, as an architectural construction for a 1,000-pound corpse, a certain magnificence.

Most huge corpses are those of women, who beam out differently than men, and in this booming cavern is the ghost of a woman yet to die, vast buttocks the size of sofas, barrel-big arms. “You know, we can’t just fire one of these out on one phone call,” says Davis. “We do need a little time. And there is the work on the other end, five times as much as the regular procedure. Just getting the body into a unit like this may take nine people. Then getting it to the funeral—the usual equipment won’t handle it. The vault will have to be made, the grave site is going to need to be twice as wide as standard . . . . You’re going to have to use heavy equipment. But people call up and say, ‘Well, all right, she’s gone, ship one.’ ”

Davis has three children, and none followed him into the family business. He has been the sole proprietor since his father, Forrest, breathed his last a few years ago.

Goliath doesn’t make standard-size caskets, but perhaps for Forrest, who was a trim and healthy looking man, they would have made an exception.

“No,” says Davis, as he sees me to my car. “My mother chose a casket from a competitor’s line.”

“And why would . . .”

“You would have to ask her. Now remember, tell your readers, if someone is going to need one of these big caskets, just give us a little time.”

On the way back to the interstate highway, I watch small boys chewing on slices of pizza, small girls drinking dark, sweet sugar from glass bottles, the cows chewing their way towards hamburger. The pigs are tucked away in barns evolving into sausages, tended by ranchers whose bellies swell pleasingly and ever more firmly against their stained denim overalls. Heartland America.

Bill Cameron