Dead, Disturbed: How Boston-Based “Warby Parker of Coffins” Aims to Shake Up the Funeral Industry

“Funeral homes get a 200-400% mark-up” on casket sales, he said. “I was like, ‘There really must be a better way than this. I mean, really, this industry hasn’t really changed in over 100 years. And most people don’t shop for funerals.

Titan is one of a growing number of online casket stores looking to shake up the long-established funeral industry and are helped by a federal requirement that funeral directors must accept a casket purchased elsewhere by the family. They’re also part of what some are calling a bigger shift in Americans’ perceptions of death, period, amid a pandemic that has changed both funerals and the way some people view the end of it. life.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the cost of burial with burial has increased 6.6% over the past five years, and New England is one of the regions with the highest fees.

As of this year, the median cost of a burial with burial, casket and visitation in the United States was $ 7,848, but that does not cover the cost of other services such as cemetery land, flowers and tombstones, which can push costs above the $ 10,000 mark. A visit and a cremation that includes a cremation casket and an urn costs a little less: $ 6,970. A metal coffin, according to the association, costs on average about $ 2,500.

Most Titan caskets cost between $ 1,000 and $ 2,000 and are shipped to funeral homes free of charge. The company was first launched in 2016 and began selling coffins on Amazon shortly thereafter. In the past year, it has quadrupled its sales and expanded to four warehouses across the country, said co-founder Josh Siegel. Siegel was working at Amazon, handling the shipping of large bulky items such as televisions, when Ginsberg approached him about setting up the business.

Today, Titan claims to be the biggest casket seller on Amazon, and sells on other online platforms, including Costco and Sam’s Club. Its own direct-to-consumer website offers everything from simple pine boxes for $ 800 to the “ultimate in luxury”, “fully equipped” stainless steel Era model for $ 2,000.

This is where Jason Smith of Milwaukee found a coffin for his mother, Susie, who died last month at the age of 67 and has always loved the color purple.

“You have found him everywhere” in his life, said Smith.

The funeral home he and his siblings went to donated six different caskets, but “none of them were purple,” he said. “We wanted what she wanted.”

So Smith, 39, went looking online. In the end, he chose a royal purple casket with a yellow liner and gold details from Titan. At $ 1,050, it was less than half the price of $ 2,200 offered by the funeral home. And it was shipped, tracked, and arrived in time for its mother’s service.

“It means a lot,” Smith said. “In these times of mourning, being able to know that you have something that she would have liked.”

Titan and over a dozen direct-to-consumer online competitors benefit from the Federal Trade Commission funeral rule, a regulation passed in the 1970s that requires funeral directors to provide a general price list of all the items and services they provide. More important to Titan, the rule states that a funeral home cannot refuse a casket purchased elsewhere, nor charge a processing fee.

“The legislation recognized that this industry was hurting people,” and took advantage of it at a vulnerable time, said Paula Chasan, secretary of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts.

While the rule has been on the books for decades, spending habits have changed more recently, said Louis Tobia Jr., whose family ran the New England Casket Company for three generations until a fire shut down his factory. East Boston in 2019. Two major manufacturers dominate the casket industry. , he said – Batesville and Matthews International Corp. – and for a long time, funeral directors would charge a mark-up on a casket rather than charging more for the funeral services they provide. Now, direct-to-consumer startups are giving families more options and carve out a niche in the market.

“A traditionalist would say this is changing the American practice of death care,” Tobia said. “There is so much more shopping going on.”

Times are changing too. In 2015, cremation overtook burials for the first time in the United States, and those numbers continue to rise, in part thanks to factors such as environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions on cremation, and a preference for less ritualized funeral ceremonies.

Zoom funerals and COVID restriction rallies have only accelerated the trend; two-thirds of respondents to a Funeral Directors Association survey this year reported an increase in cremations at their facilities since the start of the pandemic. All of this resulted in lower casket sales and ultimately hurt the bottom line of funeral directors.

“People are looking for other ways to have funerals and are really trying to get their money’s worth,” Tobia said. “Cremation is much more common than 10 years ago, so people don’t find value in a traditional burial, casket and wake. I think people just want to do it and end up for the cheapest price they can get at this point.

Like opticians whose customers buy glasses from Warby Parker, funeral directors have had to adapt to the fact that their selection of caskets might not be enough, admitted Dutch Nie, owner of a Michigan funeral home and spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association.

“Caskets are only a small part of what funeral homes do. Our main goal is to provide families with a meaningful end-of-life celebration, ”he said. Ordering a casket online could cause more stress for families if it doesn’t arrive in time for a service, he said. “And we’ve found that when people compare, there’s really no cost savings. “

But buying coffins may signal a broader shift in the way people think about death, postulates Chasan of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The pandemic, she said, has forced many of us to face our own mortality in ways many had not envisioned. And restrictions on funeral services during the pandemic have caused people to think outside the box – or out of the coffin – entirely.

At its annual meeting in November, Chasan’s group shared ways to personalize the end-of-life experience: cardboard caskets that families can lean on as a tribute to a loved one, or DIY services. that allow family members to host memorials at home and “personalize the experience instead of having it professionally handled.”

This is all part of a growing “positive death” movement, she said, which aims to shift Americans’ conversations about death as much as they have done about childbirth.

“Before, giving birth was something you left with the doctor,” Chasen said. “Now people want to experience it. “

This can be by choosing a casket, hiring a “death doula” or attending a “death café” meeting to think about burial options (“with a cake,” Chasan points out). Ultimately, she said, it’s about making death a part of life.


Janelle Nanos can be contacted at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.



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