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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.

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.

The Brentwood casket store is one of at least seven franchises started by Paul and Debra Nelson of Liberty, Mo., who started their business about three years ago. It's not the typical Jiffy Lube franchise, but the idea is the same: A fee secures the use of the company's established name, allows the franchisee to tap in to its supplier system and benefit from concerted marketing. Other Direct Casket Outlets in the franchise include two in Kansas City, three in Detroit and, with the imminent opening of a South County location, two in St. Louis. The franchise holder of the St. Louis stores is David Newcomer IV, 57, a fourth-generation funeral director whose family had, until last year, owned 16 funeral homes and nine cemeteries in the Kansas City area. In a move that has become an industry cliché, the 106-year-old D.W. Newcomer's Sons was bought by funeral giant Stewart Enterprises Inc. of New Orleans. Two brothers, Chip and Pete Newcomer, still run the funeral homes as Stewart executives. Their cousin David, however, branched out into retail caskets.

One helpful thing Direct Casket does is compile and keep current a general price list (GPL) of goods and services for all funeral homes in the area, an effort made possible by the FTC ruling that funeral homes must disclose their prices for every separate item. "For years, people have gone to the funeral homes and just complained about it," says Newcomer, reached by phone in the Kansas City area. "Now we're trying to get the word out: There are alternatives available. And since we don't offer services, we are a neutral party, and we have compiled the GPL of all these funeral homes, some 17 categories, put them on a spreadsheet so you can drop by and actually price-shop the services in the area in a very short time. In effect, it gives the consumer the upper hand, and of course funeral homes don't like that."

The reaction on the part of the funeral industry to what they call "third-party casket sales" has been predictably cool. Direct Casket and another retail outlet, Consumer Casket USA in Creve Coeur, are relatively new enterprises and must be seen as upstarts in a trade that is not known for embracing innovative practices. Moreover, the casket store -- which also sells urns, headstones, wreaths, prayer cards and sundry other funeral stuff -- is in direct competition with the funeral homes for the sale of goods.

For the time being, however, the funeral homes remain firmly in control of the market. One study shows the number of families who buy caskets separate from other funeral services is less than 2 percent, and that figure is probably lower in St. Louis. Says Mary Vollmer with Schnur Funeral Home on Lafayette Avenue at Compton Avenue, a family-owned business since 1912: "This is a very conservative business, and most of our client base is with families who've been using our services for years, and none of them would even consider a direct casket."

But that loyalty is gradually ebbing, says Lisa Carlson, director of the Vermont-based Funeral Consumers Alliance and a noted funeral-industry critic. "We are beginning to see, for the very first time, not only competition from casket stores but affordable discount-funeral operations opening up. And that's absolutely new. The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."

Carlson contends the funeral homes' own practices were their undoing: "Years ago, the way funerals were priced was to put the price on the casket, and that was the price of the funeral. And so, indeed, caskets were marked up 500, 600, 700 percent, because that covered the embalming, the limo and everything else. Then the FTC ruled that all goods and services must be itemized so you could pick and choose what you wanted. And though the industry was forced to itemize, they never dropped their casket prices. They simply started adding service prices, and so when the word began to leak out how much caskets were marked up, that was what created the market for the retail casket stores."

That doesn't stop the funeral directors from carping. Criticisms leveled at third-party casket sellers include charges that the caskets are of inferior quality, that the savings are merely nominal and that the sales staff is unfamiliar with the rules and regulations of the funeral industry.

Sills has heard all this. He says he was asked by a sales rep for a local radio station whether it were "true that your caskets are made in Mexico?" -- as if that were some sort of egregious insult and Mexicans were incapable of producing a decent casket. No, replied Sills, they're made in the good old U.S. of A. Sills says that when he asked the sales rep where he'd heard that rumor, the man admitted that his source was a local funeral director.

On the other hand, Sills and Ryan Wespiser, manager of the soon-to-open South County store, won't say exactly where their line originates or who the manufacturer is. "That's confidential," says Wespiser, 35. "We don't want to make waves here. I will say that they're pretty much the same as caskets you'd see in other places."

"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.

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.

"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."

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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