Coffin Corner

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

The Last Supper can be yours for just $2498. Not da Vinci's masterpiece or even a quick glimpse of the flesh-and-blood apostles via a little past-life regression therapy. This is a coffin. It sits next to numerous other coffins replete with names like Black Cherry ($2298), American Harvest ($2098), and the literal-minded Heaven's Coach ($776). Located in one of the slew of strip malls that border Federal Highway just north of Commercial Boulevard, the Casket Store sits next to the usual array of shoe and electronics stores, and its ambiance lacks the somber-suited sales reps and classical organ soundtrack permeating most funeral homes.

The store is well lit, with a few potted plants clustered by the front door; paintings of jungle parrots and egrets wading through pastel marshes grace the walls. Co-owner and manager Don Pinansky skips the expected somber suit and instead sports jeans, sneakers, and a button-down shirt as his daily work attire. In fact, shopping at the Casket Store is similar to browsing through any other retail outlet. Except for the coffins.

Resting on stubby marble columns, the shop's caskets come with brass accents, creamy velvet interiors, and glossy wood or steel veneers. Shoppers can choose between colors like pearly lavender or Dracula black. Even some of the lids' interiors are customized with stitchings of praying hands or mountain ranges. The Casket Store offers buyers another, rarer choice: affordable funeral merchandising.

"You should hear the people I've talked to who've been ripped off by funeral homes," says Pinansky. "Most people aren't educated about pricing. They don't know what anything costs."

Pinansky points out that caskets are the big-ticket items at funeral parlors, and many inflict as much as a 500 percent markup on unsuspecting mourners. "It's a bad place to go when you're in distress," he says. "It's like walking into a car dealership. They're slick."

Originally founded in Burlington, Ontario, the Casket Store franchise has flowered. Besides caskets, the more than 30 stores across the U.S. hawk monuments, urns, stationery, and in some cases, wreaths. Pinansky, who opened his store two years ago and has plans to expand to Miami and West Palm Beach, cites the stores' modest premises and smaller profit margins as key to their prosperity. The stores typically don't advertise and rely on their high-traffic, strip-mall locales for exposure. Funeral accessories at the Casket Store typically run buyers 40 to 60 percent less than they'd pay at the average parlor.

"A funeral's the third biggest expense in your life after your house and car. The funeral industry is very greedy," admonishes Pinansky. "They haven't really had any competition up until now."

South Florida has been somewhat slow to pick up on a national trend toward funeral price-shopping; cut-rate casket stores with bargain basement names have sprung up across the country during the past five years.

Seems like a great idea: Give low-income families a break on the extravagantly high price of funerals, which cost at least $3000 but usually closer to $10,000, according to data published by the Arizona-based Interfaith Funeral Information Committee. A large part of the expense is the casket, for which the mortician pays from $250 to $400 wholesale but sells retail for $1000 to $6000. Discount retailers like the Casket Store respond to a growing consumer backlash against exorbitant funeral home profits.

In low-income enclaves like Little Havana, Little Haiti, and Liberty City in Miami-Dade, it might seem that these stores provide a community service. But that might not always be true. While the Casket Store does offer references for funeral homes and flower shops, they operate independently. Other stores don't. Miami-Dade's two Casket Depots are really affiliated with an established mortuary -- Poitier Funeral Home. Casket Depot owner Rosalind Hadley works at Poitier and is the sister of Poitier owner Bernard Poitier.

Neither Casket Depot nor Poitier Funeral Home seems anxious to publicize their connection. Such an acknowledgement might not reinforce the public's perception of Casket Depot as a humble alternative for those who can't afford frills. (Hadley, reached by phone at Poitier's NW 62nd Street location in Miami, said she was in the middle of funeral preparations and unable to comment.)

So far it appears the two companies have kept their identities distinct in the public mind. "[Casket Depot] is owned by Haitian people, and that's how they get a lot of their business," incorrectly speculates Evelina Reid, a pleasant young woman who operates a hot dog stand across NE Second Avenue from the Little Haiti Casket Depot. Reid says everyone in the neighborhood takes it for granted that the owners are struggling Haitian immigrants, a perception fueled by the store's Creole-speaking manager and the fact that most of the businesses on that block cater to a Haitian clientele. "I see people go inside, and especially the children seem to be interested," Reid goes on, "because it's the only place you see [caskets] besides a funeral home."

Raphael Khalifa, who opened his second Funeral Store outlet about six months ago, doesn't hide the fact that he also owns Funeraria Nacional, an established mortuary with locations on SW 8th Street. "The profitability of funeral homes is taking a dive because you got something called a casket store," declares Khalifa. "So I'll tell you why I opened a casket store. I didn't want somebody else opening one up to compete with me. I'm competing with myself. I'm going to have the [casket] inventory anyway. I lowered the prices even more [in the Funeral Stores], so I make less profit there, but it's enough."

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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