The Cadillac Of Vaults

October 14, 1994|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

For three decades, the Kennedys of Hyannisport, Mass., have asked the Woods of Laurel to be at their family funerals.

The Woods build burial vaults.

Royden H. Wood Jr. helped bury John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. In May, his sons, Royden III and Christopher, laid Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to rest.

"When Jackie Onassis died, her family selected the same model vault as John Kennedy's," said 38-year-old Royden III.

John Kennedy and Jackie Onassis rest in the "Copper Triune" -- a double-reinforced, copper-lined vault with a concrete exterior. Bobby Kennedy's remains are in the simpler, single-reinforced "Monticello" line.

Since 1938, three generations of the Wood family have run Washington Wilbert Vault Works Inc., one of about 200 Wilbert licensees in the United States and Canada. Four of those are in Maryland -- one in Baltimore, Hagerstown and New Windsor.

The Laurel firm sells about 2,500 vaults annually, making it one of Wilbert's top 30 licensees.

"If you rate them on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best, they're a 10," said Jack Maynard, vice president of Hill Crest Memorial Cemetery in Annapolis. Mr. Maynard has been a Washington Wilbert Vault Works customer for 40 years, working first with the Wood brothers' parents.

Across the country, several hundred thousand Wilbert vaults are put in the ground every year, said Joe Maladra, president of Wilbert Inc., based in Broadview, Ill.

In Maryland, where about 38,000 people die each year, the concrete vault is the preferred form of burial, said Michael J. Ruck, spokesman for the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association. And industry experts say a Wilbert is the Cadillac of vaults.

The copper triune, in particular, has been the choice among the notably dead. Elvis Presley and Billy Martin are buried in them.

"There are many more," Mr. Maladra said, but he wouldn't mention names.

"We honor the wishes of the family in that we don't try to use their name in our advertising," he said. "But we do have fun talking about it among ourselves."

The Wood brothers are quick to point out that celebrities aren't the only ones in Wilberts. People of all kinds, rich and poor, known and unknown, also rest in them.

"There's a great deal of quality-mindedness when it comes to funeral arrangements and products," said Christopher, 36.

At the Woods' warehouse plant, 17 employees pour concrete, hand-etch lids and seal the final product with high-tech epoxy. The 2,000- to 4,000-pound vaults, which protect caskets from air and water, are sold in bulk to about 100 funeral homes and cemeteries in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan area, who sell them to customers.

The vaults can cost between $500 and $10,000, say the Wood brothers, who will perform the interment on request.

The business started with Royden H. Wood Sr., who worked with Wilbert W. Haase, the Chicago inventor of the burial vault in 1938. The elder Mr. Wood moved to Rockville in the 1950s, to open the Washington Wilbert Vault Works. When he died, the business was passed on to his two sons, Royden Jr. and Richard.

Royden Jr. bought his brother's share of the company in 1957 and five years later moved it to its current location on Washington Boulevard. When Royden Jr. died in 1973, his wife, Lillian, who had never been involved in the business, operated it until she died in 1986.

Royden III and Christopher have headed the company since, and Royden III's son, 14-year-old Royden H. Wood IV, is learning the business.

The brothers remember when their business was almost too good.

During World War II and the Vietnam War, their father was flooded with orders, they said.

But business isn't all that bad in peacetime, either, they said. The company sold $1.5 million worth of vaults last year.

But even as third generation vault makers, the brothers admit the job hasn't gotten any easier.

"In this business, you don't get a second chance to do a funeral," said Royden III. "If something goes wrong, that family will remember it forever. We try to treat each service as if it were a member of our own family."

Yet the older Wood brother said he couldn't think of a better way to earn a living.

"It's an honest business."

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