A brisket, a casket

September 05, 2004

THE DEATH CARE industry is living through some big changes. From the chain-store boom of the past two decades to the growing popularity of cremation and the demands of increasingly personalized memorial services and disposal instructions, those who work at funeral homes aren't finding it as restful as in the past, or as profitable: The advent of retail and Internet stores selling coffins and do-it-yourself coffin kits has cut into the profit margin a bit. But the latest salvo might revamp the market, as well as some mentalities.

Mega-retailer Costco is test-marketing a coffin kiosk in two of its Chicago stores. People can't roll away a pine box to tie to the car roof, but they can see and touch samples -- and only of metal boxes. The coffins come in just one style and six colors, but sell for $800, half the ticket price for the same coffin in funeral homes, its manufacturer says, and nearly one-third the national average price, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

It can be delivered to the funeral home of choice within 48 hours, or sooner if the buyer also uses one of the chain of funeral homes connected with the deal, which already have the models in stock and are offering a 30 percent discount on some services.

For those faced with sending a relative or friend to his or her final resting place, the growing number of choices and competition in pricing are a boon. And while they might not have considered a big-box retailer, why not? It took only a little while to get used to drug ads continuously on TV, and lawyers' ads before that.

Bringing the rituals of death into the mainstream might draw modern sensibilities back to earlier generations' healthy practical acceptance of the inevitable, as well. Memorial services at home or church, caskets and rooms decked with mementos and tokens of appreciation as well as flowers are making a comeback, though memorial photography hasn't yet. The idea that the goodbye accouterments -- from the F-16 painted on the coffin to the swan-shaped urn -- can be as unique as the person was in life, though, is a modern addition.

Funeral home associations say they will survive the big-box thrust into the market, and warn that such retailing may not succeed anyway, as many people still prefer the "one-stop" ease and personal service of local funeral homes. Besides, the market should be growing for the next few decades as the baby boomers start to permanently retire.

Dare they leave their bottom-line-oriented Gen X kids to arrange the goodbye? Hello, Megamart.

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