Thinking Outside the Box

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

"Their caskets are some off-brand," contends Gary Cooper, president of McLaughlin Funeral Home in Lafayette Square. "Definitely not Batesville (Casket Co. of Batesville, Ind.), which we consider the Cadillac of caskets. Batesville wouldn't sell to them. If they did, half the funeral homes in St. Louis would drop them."

Part of the rancor directed at casket retailers seems to arise out of a misunderstanding that they are involved in "prefunding" -- accepting money up front for a casket to be delivered later. Not so, says Wespiser, noting that funeral conglomerates such as Service Corp. International "aggressively pursue prearranged funerals" and are "sitting on top of millions of dollars in the form of insurance policies." Adds Wespiser: "We don't want to hold your money until you die. We think that people are smart enough to hold onto their own money."

Indeed, the cost of a "decent funeral" can set a middle-income family back for several years. Carlson says that "funeral inflation has continued at the rate of 5 to 7 percent a year, much higher than general inflation, and that the cost of a funeral in the U.S. (which averaged $4,700 in 1997) is twice that of one in England, France or Australia." Dubious "nondeclinable fees" make up a good portion of the bill, she says.

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."

Factor in the subtle guilt-tripping put on some susceptible customers -- "This is the last thing you can do for your husband," the pitch might go. "Why not give him the very best?" -- and you have some hasty, ill-thought-out decisions that can quickly deplete a bank account.

Wespiser and Sills understand. They claim to feel the pain of separation -- of money from the pocketbook, that is. "When it comes to funerals," says Sills, "every decision is an expensive one. It's hard to make any decision that costs less than $100. So it's important they make these decisions without being pressured."

Wespiser says his pitch goes counter to the hard sell, and if a customer is not into appearances, he won't even try to hawk the Firmament, the store's top-of- the-line bronze model with velvet interior, which lists at $3,500. "I tell them that with visitation about two hours and then another hour to take it to the cemetery and put it in the burial vault, by the time it's all done, you're going to use the casket for about three hours. So how much do you want to spend on three hours? I tell them that, it puts them at ease."

The most frequently heard criticism, however, is that places such as Direct Casket -- and they are springing up all over the country -- are not regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. By contrast, the funeral homes are strictly regulated by the FTC.

"No body governs them," says Gary Cooper's wife, Kathy, who also runs McLaughlin, "so who's going to put the thumb on them? Because, believe me, we have thumbs on us." Gerry Fitzgerald, of Southern Funeral Home on South Grand Boulevard, agrees: "We've had one instance where the family purchased a casket from a third-party outlet and delivered to us. It's competition, sure, but I think we'd like to see them regulated like we are through the FTC."

Lisa Carlson says she, too, would like to see all funeral-related providers brought under the FTC funeral rule, consumer-protective legislation that her organization spurred to passage. As it is, she says, regulation by the FTC of the funeral industry is quite minimal. "There are four basic tenets to the funeral rule," she explains. "You must disclose in writing the prices for all goods and services you offer; you must disclose in writing certain consumer rights; you may not force a consumer to purchase more than is wanted; and you can't lie to the consumer.

"It's kind of too bad," she adds, "we had to get the FTC to pass a regulation telling an industry they couldn't lie."

Some states, such as Tennessee and Georgia, have laws that make it illegal for anyone other than a licensed funeral director working in a licensed funeral-related business to sell a casket. As one journalist aptly noted, considering that the funeral director's license requires a year of schooling, including instruction on the preparation of human remains, that is like requiring a shoe salesman to be a podiatrist.

As it stands, no Missouri law requires casket sellers to be licensed funeral directors. "We sell caskets and accessories as merchandise," says Sills. "We are not governed by the funeral rule because we are not providing services. The thing is," he adds, "we can't do pre-need. Mainly our sales are "immediate need" -- that is, a death is imminent or has already occurred."

There is no layaway plan at Direct Casket. One condition of the sale is immediate delivery to the funeral home, hospice or, in some mortality-confronting situations, the residence. The caskets are delivered by Bee Fast Delivery, a cartage company in Pevely, Mo. Wespiser says there has never been any serious problem with a funeral home's accepting delivery on one of their caskets -- although he says that one was maliciously "keyed" (i.e., scratched with a key) on delivery and had to be returned for repair -- but he understands the dismay a funeral director might experience when a party purchases everything through the funeral home except for the casket, which is the single item accounting for 40 to 50 percent of the cost of the funeral.

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