By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Driving through Atwater Village the other day, I passed a store whose only sign was a big black board painted with white letters that read ”CASKETS.“ It stuck out, in the middle of a block of nail salons, dentist offices and taquerias. I turned around, parked, and walked over.
In the front windows, open caskets were on display like bedroom sets, and two long rows of shiny wooden caskets stretched into the store behind them. Each one had a little price card on it. Way in the back was a woman sitting at a desk. She introduced herself as Diana and said she ran the store for her boyfriend, Rob.
Diana had long dark hair, great cheekbones, and seemed to be the elusive size 0. She told me a casket store has been at this location, selling discount caskets directly to the public, for several years, but that the guy who owned it before Rob kept a much lower profile: no sign, no caskets in the window, curtains drawn. His business was mostly by word of mouth. Rob opened the place up. He even rents caskets to the HBO show Six Feet Under, Diana said.
”People who go into this business -- not me -- are kind of weird,“ she said, out of the blue. ”I got dragged in -- you know, significant other.“
”So, is Rob weird?“ I asked.
”Yeah, he‘s kind of weird,“ Diana said.
We set a time for me to come back and talk to Rob.
Retail casket stores, like Rob and Diana’s, exist because caskets are expensive -- not because they cost a lot to make, but because funeral homes often charge a lot for them. Caskets can be marked up as much as five times, keeping the average American funeral around $6,400. And often, the cheaper the casket, the more the markup.
A casket made of particleboard (the most commonly sold cheap casket) wholesales for $150 and can go for $695 at a funeral home. Rob and Diana sell it for $395, and offer an even cheaper cardboard one for $195. Since the mid-‘90s, casket retailers have proliferated, cutting into funeral homes’ nice, fat casket profits.
Rob is 25 minutes late to meet me, which Diana had warned me might happen. While we wait, she shows me some caskets. The most memorable one is painted to look like a giant package and says ”EXPRESS DELIVERY. RETURN TO SENDER.“ They sell it for $1,695, versus around $2,500 at a funeral home.
Rob Karlin finally arrives. He‘s a heavy, rumpled man in his 50s with a salt-and-pepper beard and a full head of hair. He apologizes for being late.
He doesn’t seem all that weird, just distracted. He takes a few minutes to settle in and begins telling me about how five years ago he left mortgage banking and started selling caskets, after his father died. Not that he felt gouged by his father‘s funeral, he just wanted to do something different with his life.
We talk for an hour and a half, because when you talk about caskets, you can’t just talk about caskets: You‘ve got to get into funeral homes and cemeteries and crematoria and politics and laws and billions of dollars.
Karlin happened to stumble into the retail casket business just as it was getting started. A loophole in the Funeral Rule (the federal law that’s supposed to keep the funeral industry honest) had been closed the year before, and it was a loophole that had been keeping casket retailers out of business. Funeral homes had been charging a ”casket-handling fee“ (sometimes hundreds of dollars) if a family wanted to use a casket they‘d purchased elsewhere. The Funeral Rule was amended in 1994 to ban casket-handling fees, because they hurt competition. Karlin opened his first store in Culver City in 1996, and it did pretty well.
”There’s one statistic that‘s constant in the world,“ Karlin said. ”For every birth, there’s a death.“
Three years ago, sales started mysteriously falling off. Karlin didn‘t understand it, until he checked into the new pricing sheets at area funeral homes -- both big ones like Forest Lawn and Rose Hills, and smaller ones like Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary. Here’s what was happening: Funeral homes had started offering discount packages that bundled services -- such as hearse rental, visitation and embalming -- with a casket. These packages cost significantly less than buying those goods and services a la carte. The hitch was that you could only get the discount if you bought the casket from the funeral home.
Karlin calls it an ”indirect handling fee.“ The way he sees it, funeral homes are flouting the spirit of the Funeral Rule by penalizing people for buying a casket elsewhere. Funeral homes call it competitive business, and if consumers judge the packages to be good deals, who are casket retailers to gripe?
It‘s a good question. I haven’t quite decided for myself whether I agree with Karlin. On the one hand, it‘s great that funeral homes are lowering their prices (in some cases) to be competitive with casket retailers, and if individual casket retailers suffer, too bad. On the other hand, if casket retailers are driven out of business by being undercut by big funeral homes, that brings us back to the days when funeral homes had a monopoly and could charge whatever they wanted.
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