Are they makeshift caskets for pandemics and war? Coffins? Septic tanks? Did the CDC, FEMA or another federal agency order them in case of mass casualties? People driving down Interstate 20 west from Covington may have noticed row after row of black coffin-looking boxes lining a portion of Almon Road. But what are they really?
There are dozens of YouTube videos, blogs and articles on the Internet in support of these nefarious theories numerous other speculations surround the purpose of these boxes. However, in this case, the truth is far less sensational.
It may disappoint some people to know that these are just standard burial vaults manufactured by Vantage Products Corporation. These vaults are used to protect caskets when they are put into the ground at cemeteries. Vantage ships the vaults all over the United States and in Canada.
Michael Lacy, vice president of operations at Vantage, said over the years, he has heard many of the rumors, which his company has had to debunk, about what the products were and why they were there.
"We've had a number of emails come in and phone calls. There are all kinds of websites that are out there and are conspiracy theory websites and that type of stuff," Lacy said. "We were getting phone calls wanting to know if we were associated with FEMA, or if we were a part of the government or if we sold to the government.
"We have in the past sold other products to the government to the Veterans Administration [for] their cemetery and we do have a few of our burial vaults that go to the state cemeteries, but we're not part of the government and none of the products that we have stored out there are slated for the government," Lacy said.
"As far as the rumors go, they are so varied from there being that we're close to Atlanta because the CDC is here and they're planning for a mass pandemic of some kind; we're right along the interstate so that we can move products quickly; or that we're close to the Atlanta airport because it's the biggest in the world - I mean whatever reason that somebody can think of, they've used it," he said.
Newton County Coroner Tommy Davis, owner of J.C. Harwell & Son Funeral Home, also said he has heard a number of stories about these burial vaults and has received phone calls from people inquiring about them.
"They'll call and they'll be like, we know that place up there on Almon Road is for mass burials, or FEMA purchases these for mass casualty situations, and that's not the case," Davis said. "It's not the responsibility of the government to bury people, so the government wouldn't purchase this type of material. A vault is not a requirement by law."
Lacy said in the funeral and death care industry, it's common for people to make funeral arrangements prior to death and that some people like to choose their own caskets and burial vaults that will be used at the time of their death. Because of these arrangements, about 140,000 burial vaults are stored on the property.
"The majority of the product that is out there has already been sold," Lacy said. "Funeral homes and cemeteries [sell] their services and products-it's called pre-need, they are selling you the products that you will need or may use when you die," he said. "When that happens, they sell one of our burial vaults, they store it, they call us and they purchase the burial vault and we have a certificate."
Lisa Barlow, director of sales and marketing, said the sale of the vaults is never between Vantage and the consumer and that the company sells to the funeral homes on behalf of the consumer.
Lacy said Vantage makes a number of products, but the burial vaults are are seen most often when people ride past their company.
He said a few years ago they leased property in Madison to store some of their burial vaults because it was an inexpensive land to store the products and that the company eventually had to put out a release to explain their product and why it was there due to a number of phone calls and discussion on the Internet.
Lacy explained that when considering the number of actual deaths in the United States, compared to the number of burial vaults stored on the property, it really wasn't a significant number of burial vaults being stored.
"If you look at the death statistics and how many people die a year, it's roughly 2 million a year annually in the United States. Of that, about 50 percent of them go directly in the ground, they are in ground burials. So, there are a million people going per year in the ground," he said. "We've got a very small percentage of that market."
"These are sales where people have done the pre-need deal and we're storing them for them. They have paid for the product; they need to have a product here. Instead of us holding on to the money and saying, 'We have the product.' We have the product here," Lacy said.
He said as for the rumors, he thinks people get a kick out of the added drama behind all of the extreme stories, but Vantage is just a company running its business.
"We're a legitimate business and we're here to serve people whenever they die."