2012-03-21

Coffin Costs

    The coffin is an important item to any funeral, after all, when one thinks or googles funeral the first things that come up are usually of people carrying or crying over a coffin in a cemetery.  Yet it is so expensive, disproportionately so.  A mid-range coffin will have well over 100% profit on it.  What is interesting is that people pay this cost and that once they find out about the high profit margine they are offended.  We do not like the idea of a funeral home making profits, all despite it being a business like any other.  Coles sells food, Big W sells products and funeral homes sell the process of dealing with the dead.  But they all use the same models and methods to do so.  So here I intend to examine the prices of coffins, what people get for their money and why they cost so much.

    The coffin is one of the most important items in many ways and to many people.  Coffins carry with them an emotional significance for most people, especially when they think it holds the body of their loved one.  I noticed that people will treat the coffin with reverence and significance.  Naturally this varies from culture to culture and person to  person.  For example ethnic people (such as Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, etc) will often want to 'touch' the coffin in some way or see inside it.  They touch it by either by crowding around madly and emotionally or by quietly and calmly carrying it.  Traditional Catholics on the other hand will sometimes touch the coffin by carrying it, but unless they are part of a religious order they will rarely be physically involved with the coffin and not want to see inside.  However they do gaze on it more, for them it is more visually significant than for other cultures.

Ready and waiting to be sold.
    It is also often the most expensive item at a funeral.  This is because it is all but essential for a funeral.  You have to get the body there somehow and people rarely want to see the body itself being interacted with.  People like the body to be in a box or wrapped up heavily and it is this wrapping or box that is handled.  However, while essential this is not the reason the coffin will cost so much, nor is it the reason "high end" coffins exist.  It is because of the previously mentioned significance that they are so costly.  For a low end coffin one could expect to pay $1,000.  For a midrange model one pays $2,000 to $5,000 and for the top end it would cost $6,000 or more.  

    The value for money is quite interesting.  Firstly coffins are just boxes, usually wooden, and looking at them being made this is quite clear.  Although the end product is actively deceptive of this fact, and idea I will expand in another post at another time.  But for now I will explain that they are usually chipboard, just like furniture.  Yes, until you get to the high midrange prices or higher the inside is just chipboard and it will have shiny plastic handles.  One of InvoCares favourite coffins are what people in the industry refer to as "the ikea coffins" or "the snap-together coffins.  Because they literally snak together, they arrive at the funeral home, fresh from China, as flat separate pieces in a cardboard box.  Staff then take these pieces and "whack them together", not needing any glue, nails, stapes or anything else to fix the pieces together.  Due to being made in China on mass they are very cheap for InvoCare, even after shipping they cost well under the price charged.  However they are considered to be very cheap and low quality by those I talked with in the industry.  There were often gaps of almost an inch between whole sides, exposing the contents within.  There was also an incident or two where a coffin got caught as it was lowered at the grave, quite a common affair, but on a few rare occasions they broke open, quite uncommon.  Another interesting point on the low end models is that this is where LifeArt starts and aims most of its advertising.  LifeArt are basically cardboard coffins which are said to be very cheap compared to others and also very environmental.  Luckily neither of these points are particularly true, not that the truth matters to most.  But they cost more than the basic $1,000 chipboard coffins and are made from trees as are the wooden coffins. 

    Of course this is just the low end coffins, with the midrange the quality often changes quite a bit.  For example midrange models are almost always chipboard (which is actually quite decent for a coffin) and put together in a more complex method than the 'snap together' variety.  These coffins will also sometimes feature actual metal handles rather than plastic and have more details on the body of the coffin.  But they cost $5,000 or more, so one would expect these basic changes.  Yet seeing it from the undertakers angle one wonders if this price is worth it.  People outside the industry assumed that if the coffin cost $5,000 for them then it would cost the funeral home $4,000 or more.  It was always assumed that the profit margin was low or at least modest.  When I informed them that the coffin actually cost $1,000 to $2,000 (after shipping and tax) they were quite surprised and outraged.  But why, what is wrong with a business making money?  Well, quite simply I wont answer this here, it is too long and convoluted a concept to discuss in this post.  So for now I will look at why the funeral home has such a high profit on certain coffins.

    As one conductor said "the expensive coffins are the bread and butter of the industry".  He went on to say that this large profit allows the company to survive, to pay the employee wages and cover unforeseen costs.  One would think that the "service fee" families pay for funeral would cover the cost of the funeral.  But it only covers most of it and for that funeral.  There are others where the service fee did not cover everything.  For example I waited for over an hour at RPA for the body to be released (due to the shocking attitudes and management at RPA).  So who paid for the time we spent there, for two people to just sit around for an hour or so?  Well the coffin did.  It would be wrong and inappropriate to pass this cost directly onto the family, whether they can afford it or not.  But it would be just as wrong not to pay the transfer crew for their time.  Thus instead the cost is taken off the cost of the high profit coffins.  So now you might be thinking that undertakers are basically taking the costs of funerals from those who pay for a high profit coffin.  This is essentially correct; the funeral home is doing a funeral yet charing another family for the costs that the original family would refuse.  Nothing is wrong with this practice, the costs have to be covered and it would be wrong or impossible for the funeral home to pass on these costs.  So if they want to stay in business then they have to find the money somewhere.  This somewhere is high profit coffins, if people are willing to pay this price then the funeral home has every right to charge the price.  A suit salesman once told me that he would charge over 180% profit in some suburbs for his suits to cover the costs of selling suits at a slight loss in other places.  It is simply the same process at work with coffins.

    Actually the whole coffin sale process is quite refined.  Tom Jokinen explains the American coffin sale process in 'Curtains: Adventures if an undertaker in training' (an amusing and true book).  Here he illustrates how where coffins are placed in the "show room" is strictly dictated.  And not just their hight, but their lateral location (as in which is on the right and which is on the left).  They even specifically design the pathway people will walk, working out the direction and pace of travel.  All very American and related to McDonaldization, yet in Australia we do not do things quite the same way.  The sale of coffins is often more relaxed here, although showrooms exist and are thought about they are not thought of in the same detail as in America.  In fact WNBull (a top funeral home in Sydney and one of the most expensive) did not even have a show room of any sort.  One existed in the past but they found it was not used very much or well and as such turned it into a meeting room.  This is interesting in and of itself.  That in America the show room is considered important if not essential for most funeral homes according to Jokinen.  Yet in Australia even a top funeral home did not see a need for a show room and instead thought a staff meeting room would be more effective.  Actually, not many funeral homes in Australia have show rooms.

    Many undertakers who are involved with organising a funeral for a loved one, or themselves, will tend to buy the midrange coffins.  These people will also either inspect the coffin in the trim shop, not in the show room or simply pick it from a book (like most Australians).  However they will always have a pre-determined preference for the coffin.  They know what they want, what they will pay and what they will get and they got for that.  Talking with undertakers who had organised funerals for relatives it was clear they were never sold a coffin so much as bought the coffin.  Yet more interestingly, knowing the value and markup, people with industry experience will either got for the very cheapest of the cheap of upper midrange.  From talking with them I think it is because they know the value of the cheap coffin is decent and they do not see the reasoning for paying more.  After all, these are people who have been to several funerals every day for the past few years which has made it a mundane and common affair.  When they got for the upper midrange it appears to usually be because of the "value" or "quality" that they see in these coffins.  They know what they are getting, know the high profits and yet think of these coffins as quite worth it for themselves and their loved ones. 

    If one wanted to buy and provide a coffin themselves without going through a funeral home then this is quite possible.  Simply contact a coffin manufacturer and see which one will sell a single coffin.  Almost all Australian coffin manufactures would be quite happy and willing to sell one coffin to someone (and have done so in the past, even taking custom orders).  I would recommend 'Beta Caskets' for this as they have good service, are good quality and well priced.  You might pay a lot more than it cost to make, but it would still be cheaper than buying it from a funeral home.  Again, despite knowing this and having contacts with coffin manufacturers funeral directors are still most likely to buy the coffin through the funeral home.  I have never heard of someone with industry experience buying the coffin from the manufacturer.

    Value is an complicated idea when talking about coffins.  One dimension is that they have an emotional value, playing an important role in the funeral service.  On another side they have a financial value, people want quality for paying thousands.  Yet this value decreases as price increases with top range coffins having over 100% profit for the funeral home.  At first many people find this profit avaricious, to be taking advantage of the dead and the grieving to make money.  Upon closer inspection this becomes transparently false as the money does go to covering valid unspoken costs.  Without the top end coffins there would be far fewer funeral homes and far fewer options for families.

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2 comments:

  1. It is good to know that a coffin manufacturer will be happy to sell you a casket rather than getting it through a funeral home. My husband's grandmother recently passed away and his mother doesn't really like any of the choices from the funeral home so it is good to know that we aren't limited to their options. Hopefully we will be able to find something that can fit our needs. http://www.caringfunerals.com.au/coffins

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  2. Just curious what is the award wage for trimming coffins in Sydney ?

    ReplyDelete

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