“My initials are inside a casket, J.B.,” said Bean.
Jeffery L. Bean: We are making things for a person that they will put their loved one in. It’s a very memorable moment in their life. I lost two family members at one time – my mom and her sister. I had to bury them at the same time. I took pride in knowing they went in a Batesville Casket — something we had built, something that was built right here in Batesville, Mississippi. I got a lot of pride and consolation in that. That pride is no longer there, because they will not be made in Batesville, Mississippi. They will not be made in America, but be made in another country. I don’t take pride in that at all.
I sign off on everything I do. That’s something we started years ago. If you take pride in what you do, you don’t mind putting your initials on it. So, my initials are inside a casket, ‘JB.’ A lot of people do that. That’s the way we were trained years ago. When you take pride in what you do, you take ownership — you initial it. It’s on different pieces. It’s hidden. Sometimes it’s on a little board inside where the family can’t see — but it’s there. I’ve done something hopefully to make a family happy and worthy of what they put their loved one in. That’s the main thing, providing a service for a person’s loved one.
Back in November, everybody was working and all of a sudden the managers came by and said we need to have a meeting. We need everyone to meet in the cafeteria. We have a plant-wide meeting. It was very strange. The atmosphere was different that day. It was totally different. We knew something was coming, but we didn’t know what was coming. They announced that the plant would be closed on March 17th. It was silent. People actually could not ask questions at that time. They told us they would set up dates where they would meet with employees one-on-one or with groups to explain what the next steps would be to this closing. And they did not let us go back to work. They told everybody to get their stuff and just go home. It made me feel angry. Because, that’s where I work — that’s what my life has been. That’s where my job is. And to be, shut out of everything — not knowing what the next step is. That wasn’t a good feeling. That’s not a good feeling. It was devastating to a lot of people. A lot of people wasn’t aware this might happen. I’m not one of those people. I was kinda aware this might happen, because we opened a plant in Mexico seven to nine years ago and I’ve been looking for this to happen. It’s not a surprise to me.
It’s very frustrating because of the impact that it’s going to have on Panola County and the surrounding area. It employed all these people. You look at the economic impact that they will have, you are basically losing $30,000 a year times 240. That’s a lot of finance being lost. People have bought houses, people have bought cars. People have bought a whole lot of things because they wasn’t looking for this to happen. Who would have thought that you would not be making caskets? People die every day. They’re still making caskets, but they’re not going to be made in America. They will be made in Chihuahua, Mexico. And my understanding, the casket that will be made there will be like a laminated casket, which is not real wood. We make real wood, real hardwood, real softwood, real pine, real cottonwood here in in Batesville and Panola County. But in Mexico, I don’t think they will be making the quality that we make.
I think our mayor and some of the officials tried to reach out to President Trump. I think our governor has tried to reach out to him. Yes, cremations have come up. And buying caskets has gone down — but not that much.
Seven years ago we started making parts, producing parts and shipping to Mexico. We’d make parts for Batesville casket and you make parts for Mexico. The last few years Mexico became the priority. If we needed parts, and they needed parts, we’d box our parts up and ship them to Mexico and then do what we had to do to stay running. It is not right the way that this is happening, the way this is playing out. We’re not happy with what happened, but there’s no way we can change it. But we did say one thing as this group of people: we’re going to make sure we take pride in last year units that we make (we called caskets units). There’s a lot of pride, a lot of time and lot of effort put in those last units — that may not have happened a year ago — but it’s happening now because we know this is the last caskets that we were making — the last signatures.
Not everyone signs a casket. It kinda just fell by the wayside. They didn’t ask people to stop, they just stopped making it a part of your daily sign-off — because it takes time. Some of us still do it, because I see the mark as the casket is coming down the line. And you know somebody that’s been there a long time is still taking pride in what they do and signing off on it. It’s not a number. It’s a signature. There’s a difference between a number and a signature. All caskets have a number, but very few have different signatures.
Jeffery L. Bean was a pre-finish lug fabricator at the Batesville Casket Company, Panola division in Batesville, Mississippi. He’d worked there for 26 years, doing 52 different jobs until he became a “displaced” worker on March 17, 2017. The company, a division of Hillenbrand Inc., made wooden caskets at the Batesville plant since the plant’s opening in 1988. At its height of production, more than 500 people worked at the plant, according to reports. Last fall, the company announced it was closing the plant and moving the manufacture of wooden caskets to Chihuahua, Mexico.
Panola County, Mississippi is the most western county in Appalachia according to the Appalachian Regional Commissions definition of the area.
In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu.