Thinking Outside the Box

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

"You'd be upset, too, if someone took away a sizable portion of your gross," Wespiser says with a hint of sympathy, "but who has ordained funeral directors to be the only one who sells caskets to families?"

When Burkett, the North St. Louis housewife and Direct Casket customer, had her mother's casket delivered to Austin Layne Mortuary on West Florissant Avenue, she found the good undertaker a bit indignant. "He asked me why did I go there," she recalls. "I told him, 'This is where I wanted to go.' He said, 'But you needed our services.' I said, 'Sure I needed your services.' He said, 'But we could've sold you this casket much cheaper.' I said, 'How do you know? You don't know how much I paid for it.' I got what I wanted," she concludes. "That's all that mattered."

"If somebody would buy a casket from a third-party casket store and hope to have it delivered here, we would have nothing to do with it," sniffs McLaughlin's Gary Cooper. "They would have to guarantee that it is free of defects from the time it left to the time it got here. But we wouldn't touch it or handle it."

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."

Under federal law, funeral homes are required to accept caskets purchased elsewhere, but some funeral directors make the transaction a bit daunting by requiring the customer to sign a "Release and Hold Harmless Agreement," a waiver written in obfuscatory legalese that essentially says if the handles fall off when the casket is being carried down the steps, the funeral home will not be held responsible. Another discouragement, says Wespiser, is an insistence by some funeral homes that the family be present when the casket is delivered. "That's nothing but an inconvenience," says Wespiser.

The funeral-home route, of course, is all about convenience, trained as the homes' staffs are to assist in every facet of the disposition of the dead, from providing a cemetery-approved container to orchestrating a ceremony to taking care of the business end of death by notifying Social Security and securing the death certificate. In terms of convenience, the casket store can't touch that. Nor are homes necessarily exorbitant in price. Short of a shallow grave in a potter's field, there is a deal for every sort of pocketbook. Kriegshauser, for example, offers the low-end Triton Brown, a 20-gauge nonprotective steel casket, a complete traditional funeral with one-night visitation, transportation from place of death to the mortuary, all the mortuary services, funeral coach, register book, prayer cards and thank-you notes -- all for the cost of $2,950, well below the national average.

Ultimately, the customer will decide between the convenience of one-stop shopping that the funeral homes offer and the economy of doing it piecemeal by, say, buying the casket one place and the headstone at another, then pulling it all together with the same sort of effort that might go into planning a wedding. The casket stores are betting that the money potentially saved will trump the pricier but hassle-free funeral-home package. David Newcomer hopes you will think of it in this way: "Say you make $12-$15 an hour. It may take you a month to earn a thousand dollars. By coming to us, you can save that much within 30 minutes. So if you think of it that way, this is a very easy decision."

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