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Frugal to the Very End

Shopping online for a coffin or cremation urn can save money and offer a wider variety of designs and materials

By Ellen Ryan

Americans shop online for everything these days — food, beds, cars, even dates. So why does an overwhelming majority of families still go to funeral homes to buy final resting products for their loved ones?

A funeral home with several caskets on display. Next Avenue
"Families walk into a funeral home and think [what they're offered] is the going rate. They don't know what's possible."  |  Credit: Getty

Because we don't realize there's an alternative, entrepreneurs say. And funeral homes, though ordered to be open about prices and options, often are not, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates these matters under its little-known "Funeral Rule."

"Families walk into a funeral home and think [what they're offered] is the going rate," says Jeffrey Vaynberg, president of Prime Casket Company, which works exclusively with Costco. "They don't know what's possible."

The Benefits of Competition

What's possible is lower cost, more solicitous service and quicker response. If you would rather have your estate go to your heirs rather than those of a funeral director, consider talking with relatives this holiday season about modern options for buying a casket or urn — with quality just as high as you can get across town.

"Industry studies show that the average casket shopper buys one of the first three models shown, generally the middle-priced of the three. So it's in the seller's best interest to start out by showing you higher-end models."

If you are planning a traditional full-service funeral, the coffin is often its most expensive item, the FTC says. "Caskets vary widely in style and price and are sold primarily for their visual appeal. . . . Although an average casket costs slightly more than $2,000, some mahogany, bronze or copper caskets sell for as much as $10,000."

Here's what can happen to an unsuspecting consumer, according to the FTC's Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist: "When you visit a funeral home or showroom to shop for a casket, the Funeral Rule requires the funeral director to show you a list of caskets the company sells, with descriptions and prices, before showing you the caskets.

"Industry studies show that the average casket shopper buys one of the first three models shown, generally the middle-priced of the three. So it's in the seller's best interest to start out by showing you higher-end models."

Even if you want to see an unfinished wooden casket — the "pine box" of old — a salesperson will rarely show one, and especially not an economical, eco-friendly canvas or cardboard model. True, these won't preserve the deceased. But then, neither will the most "gasketed" or "sealed" metal casket, no matter what a funeral director suggests.

Don't Expect Miracles

"The Funeral Rule forbids claims that these features help preserve the remains indefinitely because they don't," the FTC states. "They just add to the cost of the casket."

Nontraditional vendors, though, offer caskets of all materials at a wide range of prices. Shop around for what you want. Staff at reputable vendors are happy to answer questions by phone.

Rebecca Plett, a lawyer with the FTC Division of Marketing Practices says the commission is considering revising its Funeral Rule, which took effect in 1984 and hasn't been updated since 1994.

One possible change would require online price disclosures, says Plett, who is also one of the FTC's Funeral Rule coordinators. Many funeral directors have a poor record of telling consumers their prices in person and by phone.

The Prime Rose is the most popular offering from Prime Casket. Members will find this 18-gauge-steel, pink-velvet-lined item on the website for a pretax price of $1,149.99. Members of Sam's Club might choose a Titan casket; Costco Next and Amazon offer these as well.

Savings, Selection and Service

"By cutting the middle man, we can save you thousands of dollars on funeral costs," Trusted Caskets promises. The company's "Father" metal casket in monarch blue and silver is priced at $1,249. Titan sells a cloth model for $799; in a TikTok video, company co-founder Scott Ginsburg lifts one over his head.

As with most consumer goods, cost is not the only comparison point, though.

"We provide way more selection than [customers] can expect to find at their local funeral home — there just isn't the space there."

"We provide way more selection than [customers] can expect to find at their local funeral home — there just isn't the space there," says John Haake, head of growth for Overnight Caskets, which sells through Amazon and Walmart and direct to consumers online. "They are so knocked out by the selection that we get photos all the time from customers pleased at the product and service we provided."

Consider the choices at Trusted Caskets: Materials include stainless steel, standard steel, bronze, copper, and wood (mahogany, walnut, cherry, maple, oak, pine, poplar and cedar, solid and veneer). There are oversize caskets, men's and women's designs and religious themes. Titan, for one, adds military themes, bright colors and child and youth sizes.

Shipping — Where and How

The FTC says its Funeral Rule gives consumers the right to buy a casket from a third-party dealer "and have it shipped directly to the funeral home."

If you do this, Plett says, "generally it would be helpful to let the funeral home know that you've placed an order so that they know to expect it."

A word of warning about the Funeral Rule: This federal regulation applies to all "funeral service providers," which are defined as offering both goods and services. Companies that sell only caskets or urns, for example, are not offering services (such as burial or cremation services), so they are not covered by the rule.


Some casket companies will not deal with the delays and complexities of shipping to Alaska and Hawaii. If you are arranging a funeral in either of these states, check your options carefully. In Hawaii, for example, Overnight Caskets ships only to Honolulu. When an online shopper entered a ZIP code in Alaska, all Walmart caskets suddenly became out of stock.

"This is a new way for Americans to shop for funeral products."

Laura Mack of Bemidji, Minnesota, has ordered from Overnight twice — in 2016 and this spring. The first time, she contacted customer support to be sure the product would arrive by the desired day if the family ordered by a certain cutoff time. "They promised, and it came the next morning," she says.

In both cases, she says, the funeral home was impressed at the product's "perfect" condition; the second time, officials requested that family be there when it arrived in case of damage, but "it was so well packed and so well shipped" that there was none.

The National Funeral Directors Association recently estimated that a majority — 60.5% — of Americans will choose cremation for themselves or a loved one this year. This statistic has risen every year for decades.

Cremation Urns and Details

Families who opt for cremation often will rent a casket for the visitation and funeral. In such cases, the funeral director is required to offer a plain wooden, canvas or sturdy cardboard container that is then cremated with the remains. The FTC tells consumers that funeral homes must disclose in writing your right to buy such a container for direct cremation and make it available.

Of course, these too are available online from the same outlets that sell fancier caskets.

The same principles apply for cremation urns: They cost more when bought at funeral homes, which have traditionally had a near-monopoly. Funeral homes cannot refuse to use an urn you provide or have delivered to them, nor can they charge extra to do so. And more vendors are offering a greater variety online for less.

Decorators Enter the Market

Urns, being small, are available from a larger variety of vendors; even Wayfair, the online home decorating retailer, is in on the action. Every color and style seems to be available, and some are true works of art not easily recognizable for what they are. There are plenty of choices for your pet's remains, too.

The biggest change of all: you can choose at home, in private.

"This is a new way for Americans to shop for funeral products," says Haake of Overnight Caskets. "Not so long ago we bought books and CDs online but couldn't imagine buying cars and homes this way. It's the same kind of evolution for funeral products."

Ellen Ryan is an award-winning writer and editor. She is the former managing editor of The Washingtonian. Read More
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