Relentless low-pitched noise rumbles throughout the 300,000 square foot factory, ricocheting off the concrete floors and corrugated metal walls. The sounds of electronic beeps and shrill bells are punctuated by intermittent drilling—similar to what you hear in the pits at the Indy 500. My 62-year-old mother and I survey the assembly line of finished metal caskets as second-shift workers add finishing touches that resemble pin striping to the shiny façades. A hydrolic lift loads the coffins onto awaiting trucks—famous white and green trailers with the friendly warning on the back: “Drive Safe. Heaven Can Wait.” A model known as The Primrose model sails by on the line. “Our bestseller,” says Mark Lanning proudly, vice president of investor relations at Batesville Casket Factory in rural Batesville, Indiana—casket capital of the United States. Retailing at about $3,000, The Primrose gleams bright white beneath fluorescent lights. Featuring enamel plates decorated with delicate pink roses fixed to the corners and more roses machine-stitched on the white padded interior, The Primrose makes a perfect resting place for a beloved grandmother or schoolteacher.

Workers prepare caskets for paint

Workers prepare caskets for paint

All three of us wear large plastic safety glasses, which I keep pushing up on my head (a blatant disregard for safety). Lanning informs us that the factory cranks out a fresh casket every 58 seconds.

“It’s kinda similar to auto production,” says Lanning, watching the men and women, in t-shirts and jeans, dust off the finished caskets with a towel. “Like producing a mini version of a car with no motor or wheels.”


Final inspection

Dressed like a state assemblyman in a grey slacks, white shirt and a tie, every grey hair in place, Lanning is serious about his product. He has worked at Batesville Casket Company for 20 years, and he discusses the features of the Batesville casket with the kind of single-mindedness found in a successful door-to-door salesman. One of those features is the patented Memory-Safe Drawer, a little drawer inside the coffin where you can store personal affects like photos or letters, “instead of just throwing them in the casket.” There is no trace of irony to this man. Raking in $678 million last year, Batesville Casket Company is serious business.

DSC02211Sandwiched between Indianapolis and Cincinnati in Southeastern Indiana, Batesville has a population of roughly 6,000; slightly less than half of these folks work at the casket company, an industry that has supported this green, hilly town for the last century. Settled by Roman Catholic German immigrants, Batesville residents are proud of their heritage. Local eateries serve German specialties like wiener schnitzel and bratwurst and white stone statues of Mary stand in modest, well-manicured yards. Batesville’s most famous family, The Hillenbrands, are the Rockefellers of Batesville, and streets and public buildings are named in their honor. John Hillenbrand, a German immigrant, first began making hardwood caskets in 1861. His son, John A. Hillenbrand, a true captain of industry, purchased the failing Batesville coffin company1906, renamed it Batesville Casket Company, and built a thriving business. The Hillenbrands ran the company for four generations until August “Gus” Hillenbrand stepped down in 2006. Hillenbrand, Inc. branched out into hospital bed production in 1927 under a division called Hill-Rom, and today you’ll find Hill-Rom beds in nearly every hospital in America. Whether caskets or hospital beds, you know you got problems if you require a Hillenbrand product.

Batesville's first family: The Hillenbrands

Batesville's first family: The Hillenbrands

With roughly 45 percent of the market share nationwide, Batesville Casket Company is the Walmart of death care. Batesville Casket Company operates three other factories: two in Tennessee and one in Chihuahua, Mexico, but the headquarters in Batesville, Indiana, that produces metal caskets, remains the largest.  More popular than wood due to their lower price, Metal caskets make up about 60% of the caskets sold in the United States.

Mom asks Lanning if employees get a free coffin as part of their benefits package. He informs us for the second time today that Batesville Casket Company does not sell directly from the factory. For the first time today I ask why. “You don’t just go buy your product and have your own funeral,” he says. “The only person that can conduct a funeral and handle a body is a licensed funeral director.” Batesville only sells its products through licensed funeral homes.

There’s something appealing about the mechanical orderliness and sheer productivity of a factory (in the time it takes for me to take a shower, the workers at Batesville Casket Company have produced fifteen caskets!). I’ve admired factories ever since childhood when I watched Mr. Rogers and his field trips to the suitcase factory and printing plant—the smooth systems of conveyor belts hypnotized my young eyes, and each finished, quality-tested product served as a sturdy example of human achievement. Mom admits sadly that she never visited her father at the U.S. Steel mills in Gary, Indiana where he worked his whole life. My grandfather, son of Polish immigrants, was working at the mill the day I was born, and decided to sneak off for a catnap in the utility closet (he was already in his mid-sixties at this time).  My grandfather once told me how his supervisor went searching for him when my grandmother called the plant to tell him I had been born. His supervisor found him asleep on the job, kicked him in the legs, and told him he was in big trouble. But grandpa didn’t care when he heard the news of my safe, healthy birth.

After the casket factory, we head to a famed Batesville establishment, The Sherman House, a German restaurant and Inn established in 1852. At 5 p.m. on a Thursday, the empty streets of downtown Batesville give the city a eerie feel—like a dusty set from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn; the old-fashioned movie theater and quaint diner advertising homemade pies are closed. You can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling by. The Sherman House, huge and sprawling, with large banquet halls for weddings and conferences, is also bereft of clientele. With it’s exposed wood beams and stained glass, the interior was designed to look like a rustic German cottage, at least according to the designer charged with the task of reproducing German kitsch in 1975. It needs an update. Countless wooden chairs with brown leather cushions are scattered around heavy wooden tables; the pink and grey paisley carpet is worn from years of company dinners on the Batesville Casket tab. Our attentive, middle-aged waitress, brings us complementary fried biscuits with apple butter, an Indiana favorite. I’m disappointed to discover there’s only one German beer on the menu—Warsteiner, the classic wheat beer available pretty much everywhere. I order one and mom gets hot tea as usual.

The Sherman House, restaurant and inn

The Sherman House, restaurant and inn

Our meal, entitled “German Fare,” is a little sampling of everything: wiener schnitzel, sausage, and sauerbraten. Served lukewarm, each item is very brown and mushy, and indistinguishable from the other. “No offense to Batesville,” mom says. “But this is not a vacation, it’s more like a sentencing. Let’s hit the road.”

As we head home on 74 West to Indianapolis, I switch on a light rock station.  My mom, who always insists on driving, also insists that I check her blind spots before she changes lanes, meaning that if we crash into another car, it’s probably my fault. “Straight From the Heart” by Bryan Adams comes on the radio and I sing along.

“Who’s this?” mom asks.

Despite having been married to my father who sang in a rock band for ten years and raising two music-obsessed kids, my mom never ever knows who’s singing.  She loves to tell the story about how she rode in a New York City elevator once with the Rolling Stones in 1965, right after the release of “Satisfaction,” and had no idea who they were. My 18-year-old mom and her seven girl friends, who called themselves The Great Eight were visiting NYC for the first time, According to mom, Mick Jagger told them that they were the Rolling Stones. My mother answered, “We’re the Great Eight.” The story always makes me cringe because somehow I know that’s exactly what my mother, born and raised in Gary, Indiana, daughter of a U.S. Steel worker and one of seven children, said to Mick. She really didn’t give a shit who he was and she’s never been afraid of anyone.

I decide to give mom some more clues as to the author of “Straight from the Heart.” “You know this one, mom. You took me to see him in concert in fourth grade. He’s Canadian,” I offer

She thinks long and hard. “Hmmm…is it quick hand, I mean, fast hand?”

I roll my eyes. “You mean slow hand, and this is not Eric Clapton. It’s Bryan Adams,” I say.

“He’s Canadian?” she adds.

Mom and I start laughing hysterically.  I can barely breathe.  As we pull into our garage in Carmel, Indiana, we continue to giggle with the motor running and the garage door shut behind us.

“Hey mom,” I say.  “Let’s turn off the car.”

“Good idea,” she says, tears from laughter pouring out of her eyes. “Suicide. How’s that for an ending to our day at the casket factory.”