Thinking Outside the Box

Casket retailers take a new approach to the tradition-bound business of death

Another quiet day comes and goes in the sales office. With customers so scarce, the staff passes time by kicking around ideas on how to promote business. One puts together informational packets to hand to customers when they do stroll in; another bones up on cemetery rules and regulations. KEZK-FM -- "Your Official At-Work Network Station" -- plays softly in the background. One of the salesmen pulls out a picture downloaded from the Internet that features a sexy young thing caressing a coffin. The coffin is actually a phone booth. His idea, which he intends to run by some yet-to-be-determined marketing guru at Anheuser-Busch, is to put these coffin phone booths in bars as a joint venture -- as if the brewery would really consider associating itself with this doleful enterprise -- to help promote the anti-bibulous Alert Cab concept. "You put a coffin in a bar, people will talk about it," he remarks. Suddenly a short, sweaty fellow appears at the door. He steps into the air-conditioning. A customer. No, turns out he only wants to look at the phone book. The salespeople go back to their busywork, knowing that when you're selling a product most folks don't want to think about, you can't expect a queue of customers pressing against the door.

Sandwiched between the Dairy Council and Media Pulse Inc. in the commercial back 40 of Hanley Industrial Court, Abbey Direct Casket Outlet sells caskets at bargain-basement prices. It is not a funeral parlor, and there are no cadavers for miles, which makes the store's business concept all the more novel: shopping for a casket the same way one might shop for a mattress or a telephone. Retail casket sales became feasible after a 1994 Federal Trade Commission ruling ended the monopolistic practice of funeral homes' charging "handling fees" on caskets and other funeral goods bought elsewhere by families trying to save money. It is an idea that may take some getting used to: Americans are not known to shop for caskets, especially before the death of the intended occupant. When confronted with the eventuality of Grandpa's demise, we prefer to let the funeral home, with its well-oiled expertise, take care of all the details, and damn the cost. But Direct Casket's area manager, Don Sills, wants to change all that.

"Why pay more?" asks Sills, invoking the mantra of salesmen through the ages. "A casket that sells for $2,650 at a funeral home costs about $1,750 here. Who can't use the $900 you'd save?" Sills is referring to the Marquis, a polished-steel model with tasteful velvet lining. Indeed, each of the 26 caskets in Direct's showroom has a placard bearing that item's dignified-sounding title, a brief description and three separate figures: "Average Funeral Home Price," "Our Price" and "Savings." Consider the Chalice, a handsome willow-wood model with a lining of madera fabric. At $1,695, it is a decent $385 savings over the average funeral-home price of the same model. The most popular model is the steel Triumph, commonly known as the veteran's casket. At $1,499, it comes with a folded-American-flag display on the inside lid. Regrettably, there is no plain pine box of the Boot Hill Cemetery variety priced at $99.95; that would be truly cut-rate.

Abbey Direct Casket Outlet's Brentwood showroom. According to Lisa Carlson, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, "The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."
Jennifer Silverberg
Abbey Direct Casket Outlet's Brentwood showroom. According to Lisa Carlson, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, "The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."

But what sort of a customer has the presence of mind, the sangfroid, to seek out bargains on caskets in the event of a loved one's passing? Sills says that they range from the merely curious to those in dire need. "Because we're a more friendly atmosphere that maybe puts folks in a shopping mode, some come in just to get an idea of what things cost, what funeral decisions there are to be made -- while others walk in and Mom's just died, and they need a casket delivered to the funeral home tomorrow."

Burnette Burkett, 63, a housewife in North St. Louis, bought the Marquis for her mother. "Actually, my mother had mentioned it first," she says. "She knew she was dying and said, 'We should go and pick out a casket.' And I shooed her off because we weren't ready to talk about nothing like that. Then she got too sick to go. The day after she died, I went to the casket place -- we had heard their commercial on TV -- and purchased the casket, the flowers and the spray. I was very pleased with it."

The company's commercials -- and they constantly run print, radio and TV spots -- employ the slogan "Call Us First."

"If you come to us first, we can save you up to 50 percent off the funeral-home caskets. Plus, we empower the consumer with knowledge," says Sills, 55, a former Army medical corpsman with a tour of Vietnam under his belt. "Empower" is a word these casket sellers often use. They want to be seen not merely as a place where you can get a good deal on a box but as a resource center.

"We acquaint you with prices, what to expect at the funeral homes," continues Sills. "People leave armed with information, including alternatives, which puts them in charge of the funeral process."

Customers also get a free angel pin just for dropping by.

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