Casket Design and Manufacturing The Buzz


They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes. This truth is easier to bear if you happen to work for the IRS... or in casket manufacturing.

Casket manufacturing serves a steady and thriving market in the U.S. It draws people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have approached the business through art, others through marketing, and some even through ecology.

The industry has been dominated by tradition for many decades. However, recent changes to government trade regulations and the popularity of the Internet have opened up significant new opportunities.

"Without the internet, I wouldn't be in business," says Roy "Bud" Davis of Bert and Bud's Vintage Coffins. He does much of his business over the Internet.

Sometimes Davis, who lives in Kentucky, will never meet or even speak with a customer, corresponding just by e-mail.

When his friends marvel at the risk of doing business this way, Davis likes to remind them, "I've never been stiffed." Business has been steady, he says.

"Each casket takes me a minimum of two weeks," says Davis. "So I build about 10 per year, along with several urns."

Most of the handmade caskets he builds are for pre-arrangements. A pre-arrangement is when a person designs their own casket while still alive, often in fine health.

What does a person do with a casket in the meantime? "Several of my customers use them as coffee tables," says Davis. "Probably the most unusual alternative use is the client who requested glass shelves so he can use his coffin as a liquor cabinet."

Davis took an indirect route into the business. He has a master's degree from Pratt Institute and spent decades working in the arts. He taught arts and humanities, worked in an art museum and served on two state arts agencies. All along, he would create and exhibit his own work whenever possible.

"In 1992, my older sister died unexpectedly at the age of 56," says Davis. It caused him to think deeply about his ancestors, several of whom died prematurely in tragic circumstances.

"It became apparent to me that all these people who had died long before I was born had had a tremendous impact on my life and personality," says Davis.

To commemorate them, Davis made a series of sculptures in the form of half-sized coffins containing memorabilia that told their individual stories. "That led to the realization that everybody deserves a distinctive, personalized coffin that is a truly a piece of original art," says Davis.

The passion that he uncovered has found a wide audience. Maxim Magazine, for example, commissioned Davis to build a coffin which was then given away in a contest.

Davis was even invited to appear in humorist Roy Blount, Jr.'s PBS documentary film The Main Stream, about life along the Mississippi.

"They called up and asked us to build something," he says. So Davis built Blount a steamboat-themed coffin, complete with smokestacks, and dramatically pushed Blount's mock funeral barge off shore for the cameras.

While decoration and personalization have advanced significantly, the basic concepts of casket making have not changed over time. One small exception was the safety-casket craze in early 19th century Europe. There was a relatively widespread fear at this time of being mistaken for dead while just being unconscious. Designers responded by adding mechanisms for the buried person to alert the world of the error. The person could use a trigger to ring a bell, raise a flag or set a firecracker above.

Caskets are really just boxes, made from various types of wood, metal or plastic, designed for a very specific use. Casket builders, therefore, often crossover into furniture or cabinet building, and vice-versa. The techniques and processes involved are quite similar.

Cynthia Beal of Portland, Oregon, however, sees a new horizon in the burial industry. She owns and operates The Natural Burial Company. She notes that there is actually a difference between a casket and a coffin.

"[The word] caskets is for the rectangular box shape only. The proper term for most burial vessels is coffin -- that's anything that's NOT the rectangular shape," she explains.

Beal believes that the current trend toward environmental awareness and conservation presents new opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in the field of ecological coffins and caskets.

Her website is the hub of an international network advocating for the movement toward more ecological burial practices. It involves keeping toxic chemicals associated with conventional construction out of the ground, developing sustainable natural burial sites, and everything in between.

She admits that the movement is still in its infancy here in North America. "It would be like going into organic farming 20 years ago," she says.

In fact, Beal conceived her current business from her experience in the organic agriculture movement.

"I used to run a natural food store," says Beal. "When I saw what the natural agriculture movement did to the food industry, I wanted to look at other industries with a sustainable eye."

Her website and her showroom in Oregon sell products like the woven willow caskets and the Ecopod, a coffin made entirely from recycled paper. These products, however, must be shipped from England, and Beal would like to see them made here.

Beal warns that the ecological approach is not a way "to get rich quicker," but opportunities do exist for those interested in entering the natural burial movement.

"The market for natural coffins in the long run will be about what you put into it," says Beal. "It is something to do regionally."

She advises to get involved locally and partner with the people interested in other steps in the burial process.

"The modern producer of coffins will have to be more deeply involved," she says. "Future successful people will be connectors and information providers."

To get started, Beal recommends taking an apprenticeship within the biodegradable coffin community. "There will be a niche for beautiful handmade things," she says.

Despite new possibilities in the industry, the vast majority of coffins and caskets are made by well-established, often family-run businesses. Many have been around for decades.

Caley Ferguson is the vice-president of Northern Casket Company. He is the fourth generation of his family to run the business. Ferguson studied business and took a post-graduate degree in marketing.

What does he look for when hiring young employees? "I haven't used a lot of what I learned in marketing," he says. "This business mostly involves relationship selling and buying." So rather than particular experience or qualifications, he primarily looks for interpersonal skills.

A college degree is good because it "shows that a person is dedicated enough to get it," but for him it is "all about the interview."

Ferguson says that the Internet has drastically changed the way that older, established casket makers do business as well.

"It used to be that funeral homes would keep a showroom, stocked with eight or 10 different model caskets," he says. "Now all the major manufacturers have elaborate websites where people can look at 500 or 600 different options."

Fairly recently, consumers could only buy a casket directly from a funeral home, typically for a markup between 200 to 800 percent. Now they can expand their selection and save money.

With the Internet and some ingenuity, opportunities to make a living in the casket business might never expire.

Links

Vintage Coffins
"You only get one shot at a last impression"

Natural Burial Company
Learn about some ecological alternatives

Northern Casket
Specialty, traditional and environmentally friendly caskets