Planning a funeral for a loved one can be one of the most emotional events a person experiences.
It can also become a costly undertaking depending on the services needed, the type of merchandise used and even geographical location. One of the largest costs associated with funerals is caskets — a business with some century-old manufacturers dominating the industry.
The median price for a funeral in the U.S. with viewing and burial was $7,848 as of 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s latest Member General Price List Study. That median price goes up by several hundred dollars in the mid-Atlantic region, for example, but drops for states in the Mountain time zone such as Arizona or Colorado.
Of all the expenses included in that type of funeral, such as basic service fees and embalming, the largest cost typically comes from having the casket. A metal burial casket came in with a median price of $2,500, per the NFDA data. A green burial casket had a median price of $1,500 and a wood casket was about $3,000.
Pricing on a casket can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, including its materials, and the above numbers are merely a median, Director of Public Relations for the NFDA Jessica Koth told Retail Dive via email. The national maximum for a metal burial casket is $7,400 and $9,360 for a wood burial casket, per additional NFDA data shared with Retail Dive. The national minimum cost is $300 for both types.
Two companies dominate the industry in the U.S., though. Global industrial company Hillenbrand — which owned Batesville Casket Company until earlier this year — and Matthews have a combined market share in the country of more than 70%, according to data from IBISWorld shared with Retail Dive. Hillenbrand leads the pack, though it divested the Batesville casket segment of its business officially in February.
Although Batesville and Matthews hold the most market share, neither company sells products directly to shoppers. Both companies only sell via licensed funeral providers, the idea being that consumers are able to get all merchandise and services needed for the event through their funeral homes.
“Licensed funeral directors are intimately familiar with the funeral planning process and are trained to help families make informed decisions and navigate the grief process in an environment that is conducive to healing,” a Batesville company spokesperson told Retail Dive via email.
Some companies have entered the market hoping to compete with these long-standing manufacturers, though, particularly by selling directly to consumers. It can be difficult to gain brand awareness in the casket industry, given that many consumers are used to a one-stop-shop experience at funeral homes. Is there space for DTC brands in the market? And what role does the government play in making sure consumers are educated about their funeral purchases?
'It’s not an industry that consumers want to engage with'
DTC caskets company Titan Casket was founded in 2016 by Scott Ginsberg, who was later joined by co-founders Joshua Siegel and Elizabeth Siegel. The company deviates from the norm in the industry by selling caskets not through funeral homes, but directly to consumers, at prices it says are “half the price of what they would pay at a funeral home.”
The company’s caskets are sold online — and through retailers such as Costco, Walmart and Amazon — and are arranged to be shipped directly to the customer’s funeral home of choice. Some of its cheapest options start at about $499 and its most expensive is around $4,000. Customers can choose from a wide array of colors and materials, as well as design their own custom-made casket.
The concept has gained financial interest. Titan Casket in 2022 secured $3.5 million in a seed funding round led by Reformation Partners. The company planned to use the funding in part for product development, consumer education and ensuring faster delivery speeds of one to two business days for 90% of U.S. metros.
But gaining consumer interest and awareness is a different problem. Co-founder and COO Joshua Siegel says awareness is the company’s biggest challenge, as consumers don’t regularly think about end-of-life services.
“It’s not an industry that consumers want to engage with,” Siegel told Retail Dive. “But what we've done is looked at what a consumer brand in any other category would do and let's follow that playbook. Let's normalize conversations around mortality and funeral planning.”
To that end, Titan Casket in October tapped actor David Dastmalchian as its new brand ambassador in a partnership that aims to normalize death. About a month earlier, the company appointed producer and writer Elan Gale as its first creative director.
Pricing transparency across the industry is also a challenge. When consumers walk into a funeral home in the U.S., they don’t always know how much things will cost and haven’t always thought through exactly what they want for the service, Siegel told Retail Dive.
“If you've gone through this yourself in the last few decades as we have, you get a sense that there's something broken in the process,” Siegel said. “At Titan, we believe that there's a better way and that families don't need to spend so much money.”
But do consumers even know about this “better way”? It’s made possible through the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, which gives consumers the right to buy caskets outside of the funeral home — such as online — and says funeral homes cannot refuse to handle it or charge a fee to do so.
Titan Casket’s website is plastered with this reminder to consumers — with its homepage stating, “Per federal law, all funeral homes accept our deliveries” and its FTC Funeral Rule webpage even encouraging customers to tell Titan Casket if a funeral director is breaking any rules, as the company is able to file complaints to governing bodies.
“Every family that calls us is going through this very meaningful period of their lives and we're able to help them,” Siegel added. “We're all in the same business of wanting to serve that family and make sure they get what they want. However, there are the funeral directors we still see frequently who give soft nudges [to customers], trying to get families to buy from them.”
Sometimes, Siegel said, funeral directors may tell customers that they can't guarantee an outside casket will show up in perfect condition.
“But after the first time we work with a funeral home, then the relationship typically changes because they see our level of service and how we treat their clients,” Siegel said.
Victor Sweeney, a Minnesota-based licensed funeral director, told Retail Dive that he has worked with some customers who used caskets from outside the funeral home.
“I've even had a few people build their own casket,” Sweeney said. “When it happens, do we lose a little bit of our income that might have been on merchandising? Yes, but we also don't hang our hat on making a great casket sale to stay open.”
One aspect of a funeral director's job should be to ascertain what families are comfortable with spending for funerals, beyond just the costs of a casket, the funeral director added.
“I'm not really a casket salesman,” he said. “I sell them because most people don't. … It doesn't really matter to me what a family picks, as long as they're satisfied with it and they can afford it.”
From a business standpoint, Sweeney said that it doesn’t make sense to send a family a bill they can’t afford — although there are still bad actors in the industry, as with any business. Though some funeral homes lean more heavily on making money through merchandise, he personally focuses more on the costs of the funeral services since customers are coming to him for his expertise. Opinions on third-party caskets can vary across industry professionals, however.
“NFDA’s concern with third-party retailers is consumer protection,” Koth from the NFDA said via email. “Families are already dealing with an extremely emotional situation, and it would be very difficult for them to deal with a problem surrounding the casket.”
The FTC’s Funeral Rule does require funeral homes to provide families with a written itemized price list of everything available, a written casket price list and more. However, the government agency has been considering changes to its Funeral Rule — which has the potential to impact e-commerce.
Bringing the casket business online
In an FTC staff report from October 2022, the agency found that over 60% of funeral home websites had little to no information about the pricing of their services and merchandise. The Funeral Rule was first issued in the 1980s and therefore lacks requirements for online or electronic information. But a series of comments during a routine review in 2020 showed some customers wanted firmer online disclosure rules.
“People are at their most vulnerable when they’re grieving,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in a statement last year. “That was the insight behind the FTC’s Funeral Rule, which first took effect in 1984. The goal was to prevent consumers from being taken advantage of during a moment of deep grief and loss.”
Requiring funeral providers to show pricing information on websites or through email “could also better incentivize funeral homes to offer the most competitive prices” and “ultimately lower the expensive burden of putting a loved one to rest,” Khan added.
Among several proposed changes the FTC has been seeking comment on for the past year are electronic price disclosures and an improvement to price list readability. The agency held a workshop in September to discuss the changes and kept open the window to file public comment until Oct. 10.
The changes could be valuable to an e-commerce-oriented company like Titan Casket so that consumers can more easily compare its prices with funeral homes’ offerings, Siegel said.
“Often there is just not time in the days leading up to a funeral to drive to multiple funeral homes to shop around,” Siegel said. “By the time you walk into a funeral home to have a conversation, it's often too late. Your loved one is already there. So to have that [pricing information] online and to be able to shop in advance is incredibly important.”
But comparing pricing information across funeral homes is not necessarily apples to apples.
“Each funeral home offers a unique services and pricing structure,” Koth from the NFDA noted.
The readability of every price list might depend on a consumer’s knowledge of the industry. Sweeney noted that the funeral home he works at does not post its prices online because it could cause confusion.
“It's less clear than you think it is,” Sweeney said. “Because we have so many things we're obligated to include on our price list, in some ways it makes it very challenging for your average layman to pick it up and understand what are the differences between my funeral home's price and the next guy's price.”
Enforcement of the funeral rule is another aspect that Siegel from Titan Casket hopes will improve as well.
“Enforcement of it is pretty opaque,” Siegel said. “And so most families don't know that the FTC governs the industry. If they do file a complaint, there is no public knowledge on what happened to that complaint.”
Sweeney said that there has been some chatter and blowback among funeral directors in the industry about the proposed changes. And some might simply ignore them.
When the Funeral Rule initially came about in the 1980s, Sweeney said that his employer’s father — who worked as a licensed mortician — recalls how much uproar there was in the industry.
“His comment on [remembering] it was that with the good people, nothing changed and with the bad providers, nothing changed,” Sweeney said. “The bad ones are still flaunting the rule and the good ones are following it.”