Spared death, casket becomes a novelty

It didn't feel right to scrap it, the owner of recycling business says. So now it's on display.

Published October 8, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS - We're all put in this world with a job to do. Some call it fate. Others purpose.

Coffins are no different.

Sometimes they go out nobly, holding a fallen soldier or beloved English teacher. Others carry scruffier passengers, going down with an ex-con or deadbeat dad.

Same destination, though. Dark and final.

But every so often, fate takes you off in different direction. To a road less traveled, perhaps, but sometimes more noticed.

That's what happened to one oversized steel coffin spray-painted white with silver handles.

It was a typical September day at Anclote Metal Recycling. Sammy, a skinny brown mutt, slumped at the doorway to owner Eric Hambsch's office. Scrappy the cat snuggled atop the desk, glancing at the scrappers approaching to get their cash. In walked an older gentleman. White hair. Soft manner. Dark pants. More than good-looking, said Annie, Hambsch's wife. Distinguished.

"He said he had something for me," Hambsch recalled.

The men walked outside the building where a gleaming white hearse was parked. The distinguished gentleman opened the back door and there it was.

Deep breath.

"There's nothing in it, right?" Hambsch asked.

"No," said the distinguished gentleman.

"So what's the story?"

The family of a 540-pound woman had planned her funeral, Hambsch recalled. A steel white casket with silver railing and embellishments seemed fitting. Almost ladylike. So the funeral home placed the order.

All 175 pounds of steel coffin were delivered to the funeral home. The box sat in a back room until its time came, like an inmate on death row. Then the family changed their minds, said Hambsch.

Cremation was a better idea.

But the funeral home is more of an in-and-out place when it comes to caskets. The casket had been used and therefore was unfit for anybody else, so out it had to go.

Where else do you take a casket that nobody wants?

The same place you take a World War II propeller, old hip replacement joints and a gazillion empty cans of Red Bull.

"As long as it's not stolen or radioactive, we'll take it," said Hambsch.

The distinguished gentleman, Clarence Prevatt of Prevatt Funeral Home in Hudson, got his 5 bucks or so for the casket - steel goes for about $3 per hundred pounds of weight - and left. Hambsch looked at the casket, some of its paint a little faded, no silky lining inside. He couldn't bring himself to scrap it.

Instead, one worker took a picture inside it. Then they moved the 7-foot-long box out in front of the building, placed it on top of a bundle of old aluminum cans and propped it open.

"It's got more value as it sits," said Hambsch, spoken like the former real estate investor that he is. "The pure interest of it is enough."

The coffin has caused a lot of rubber-necking on Anclote Road. Some people get out of their cars for a closer look. Some offer to buy it. A few guys have wanted to use it as a beer cooler for Halloween parties. Others don't mention their intentions.

Hambsch hasn't taken any of those offers. They're just not the right fit for the casket, he says. But a request came in the other day. Judi Dunn wants to use it as a prop for the 13th annual Bailey's Bluff Civic Association haunted house. She might put a person in it. Or a tape recorder that plays, "Knock, knock. Let me out," over and over. The proceeds will go to a women's scholarship fund.

"If she checks out and all," Hambsch said. "Then I'll let her borrow it."

Prevatt isn't as pleased about the coffin's new gig - even if it is for a good cause.

"I don't think it's humorous," he said. "It's a personal thing and is not something you use for a sign."