Caskets at the Mall—Good Idea-Bad Idea?

The recent buzz around Amarillo, Texas is over the new casket store at Westgate Mall. The buzz is over the marketing wisdom of whoever decided to sell caskets at the mall. Let’s take a look at this “thang” before we go off the rails.

If you watched Whitney Houston’s funeral on television you know that the “wow” moment came—not when Kevin Costner or Dionne Warwick spoke, or when Tyler Perry tried to preach, but when Whitney’s pallbearers, in perfect synchronized precision, lifted her bronze casket onto their shoulders and walked her out of the church. “You Go Girl!” And away she went to an awaiting hearse and to the cemetery. Few of us will ever have a “send off” like that. Nelson Mandela’s funeral had no such “wow” moment and he was the most eulogized man in history.

A bit of history. Since the dawn of man, humans have died and their remains have had to be disposed of somewhere, somehow. Except for the things The Mafia does with bodies, there are only a few ways to dispose of human remains—leave them for vultures, bury them at sea, inter them in the ground, or cremation. And, since the dawn of man, there have been some type of ceremonial rites associated with death. Funerals were not always so public—or expensive. In early America when someone died, they were buried “in route” to wherever people were traveling—and not the Lonesome Dove scenario where a dead body was taken 3000 miles across country. When people died on the farm they were buried in a private family cemetery after a private family funeral where the body remained inside the house until final removal. As time evolved, furniture makers got into the casket business by hanging a black cloth outside to notify the public that wooden caskets and not wooden furniture were being made. Over time, undertakers entered the picture to literally “under-take” to do the business of disposing of human remains. The current funeral business has evolved from this backdrop.

In 1982 the federal government began regulating funeral homes with a regulation called the Funeral Home rule. The regulation was meant to curb some of the abuses by some funeral homes that took financial advantage of people during their hour of grief. The new rules gave consumers the right to choose the funeral good and services, to receive information in writing about funeral services and merchandise before decisions and purchases were made, including seeing a general price list of products and services. The rule also gave consumers the right to get information concerning purchases of any item that was required by law. The rule also gave consumers the right to use a casket purchased from someone other than the funeral home as well as the right to have alternative containers available from funeral providers that performed cremations.

So, it is not a new “thang” for consumers to be able to buy a casket from anyone. So why not sell them in the mall? The original marketing theory of a mall was to put a lot of consumer goods under one roof to benefit numerous merchants based on planned and impulse buying foot traffic. If you are already in the mall it’s easy to spend money from just looking at merchandise in store display windows. In fact, going inside a store to “try it on for size” typically leads to some type of purchase. But would you “try on” a casket for size? Unless there is present need for a casket, meaning someone has already passed away, and arrangements are being made, who would wander into a casket store to browse around? Would teenagers do it on a dare?

I’ve had the experience of looking at caskets. I grew up in East Texas and knew a family that owned a funeral home. After the husband passed away the wife continued to operate the business. One day I stopped by to see her at the funeral home and I was shown the inside of the funeral home, including where the bodies were embalmed. I also went into the casket room. Believe me, this was a very uncomfortable experience. There is something about touching the soft interior of a casket where you know that it represents “human finality.” But, we know that this finality will one day greet us all. Still we don’t want to get too “up close and personal” before our time comes. Still, we have to face the fact that one day our own funeral must be arranged and paid for. We can make our own arrangements during our lives, including paying for the casket, typically the most expensive item other than the cemetery plot and opening and closing, or we can leave these arrangements to someone else. Still, someone needs to know the cost of funerals, including caskets options. With the increased “fattening of America” it is worth noting that the once average sized casket is now too small. So if you are planning your own final arrangements it might be worth a stop into a casket store to see what super-sized caskets cost—you will be surprised at how much more they cost. Then there are vaults and other items you might want to consider.

The other matter is that of caskets for pets. I think more people are more accepting of a casket store for their dogs, cats, birds and hamsters than for themselves. We just don’t like to “go there” with our own mortality. And so, good idea or bad idea—caskets in the mall? I think it depends on where the store is located. I would not like to leave the Food Court and pass by the casket store—or maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea. I think the marketing has to be subtle—not in your face with a casket with a manikin inside in the store window. Subtlety works with caskets selling—no hip-hip “I love Death” music and no Arlo Guthrie singing “So Long Been Nice to Know You,” in the background.

Copyright 2013 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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