Coffin Corner

Sick of coughing up big money for funerals? New retail stores are offering prices to die for.

Therefore the Funeral Stores and Casket Depots can help mortuaries move inventory as well as bring in business they might not otherwise attract. "A number of funeral directors have opened their own casket stores; I think they saw the inevitable, and they're playing both sides of the fence," says Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral and Memorial Society of America, a watchdog group. "And of course if you buy a casket at their store, guess which funeral home they'll recommend?"

Even though a discount store will surely save you money on a casket, that's no guarantee of a cheaper total funeral bill. Mortuaries can and (according to some critics like Carlson) already have started to raise rates for any number of other services they provide, such as embalming, transporting, and viewing.

Henry Wasielewski, a Catholic priest in Tempe, Arizona and long-time funeral-industry critic, contends casket stores are as much a rip-off as funeral homes. "The mortuaries are trying to catch the people who might be going to someone else's casket store," asserts Wasielewski, director of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee. "People who read about [casket discounters] are just trying to be good consumers. They go find a casket store, and it's run by the [owner of a funeral home] except it's $20 cheaper. That's nothing. There are so many more scams. People don't know what they're buying."

For example the funeral industry claims sealer caskets, equipped with a neoprene rubber seal around the lid, preserve a body longer. Sealers cost hundreds of dollars more than nonsealers. But in fact the seals actually speed the decay process by "activating the highly destructive anaerobic bacteria in the body," says Wasielewski. At the Casket Depot in Liberty City, all the caskets on display recently were sealers, the store manager said.

"Nobody, even if they're in terrible grief, will buy a $10 tomato," Wasielewski continues. "You just know tomatoes don't cost $10, but the thing is you know there's someplace else to go. But the problem is casket stores can stay in business because people don't know where to go. If they knew a beautiful metal casket costs the mortician $250, or even less with a manufacturer's discount, they'd say, 'Wait a minute.'"

The Casket Store in Broward has had its own difficulties acquiring coffins. Pinansky speculates that high-quality manufacturers like Burlington and Windsor fear boycott by funeral homes if they sell to discount outlets. He now purchases much of his stock from Liberty Casket in Canada.

On this crisp afternoon, Pinansky guides two women through his small gallery of Canadian caskets. Although they speak in hushed tones, both customers seem composed. More than 92 percent of the wares he sells are caskets for people whose deaths are imminent but have not yet occurred. For $3 a month, the shop will even store selections and ship them to the funeral home when needed.

"This isn't a financial decision, it's an emotional one," Pinansky says. "If someone comes in, they're going to buy. You don't get many window-shoppers."

Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: emma.trelles@newtimesbpb.com

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