In the spring of 2005, a glossy black trailer 53 ft. long began wending its way on a national tour. It contains a singular exhibit: the latest and coolest in casket designs from the country's leading manufacturer, Batesville. The exhibit opens with the Maserati of departure vehicles--the 540-lb., $18,500 Marsellus 700 Masterpiece. Although the Marsellus defines tradition (Ronald Reagan was buried in one, but then so was the Notorious B.I.G.), what follows focuses on the four trends that have rocked the casket industry: obesity, personalization, cost competition and cremation. Local funeral directors wandering through the exhibit examine the politely titled Dimensions line, launched in 2004 to accommodate an increasingly beefier populace. Nearby they view a display of LifeSymbols--knickknacks affixed to casket corners to signify that the occupant was, say, a fishing enthusiast. The undertakers marvel at a new line of less costly but still handsome caskets that uses--gasp--wood veneer. Finally, they admire urns and cremation jewelry, which prove that even casketmakers can't ignore the fact that more than a quarter of dead Americans wind up as ashes.
Demographically speaking, the future looks bright for the $3.5 billion casket industry. Over the next 20 years, the baby-boom generation, despite its considerable efforts to the contrary, will start to meet mortality, swelling the death rate in the U.S. from 2.4 million a year to 3.2 million. By 2040, annual deaths are forecast to hit 4.1 million. You'd think the big casketmakers--Batesville, York and Aurora, which together produce at least 70% of all caskets sold in the U.S.--would be resting easy.
You'd be wrong. About three-quarters of Americans make their final exit via a casket, according to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association. That will change. The Cremation Association of North America predicts that by 2025, nearly half of deaths will end in cremation. While 13% of cremations involve the use of a casket (some families choose, often at their funeral directors' urging, to conduct a traditional viewing of their loved ones before cremating their bodies), families are increasingly less likely to shell out thousands of dollars for a box destined for the incinerator. To make matters worse, that shrinking market is also sought by a growing number of competitors: discounters, Chinese imports and independent craftsmen who ply their wares directly to consumers via storefronts or the Web. Add the rising costs of steel and lumber, and you begin to hear the opening lines of an industry requiem.
Or maybe not. For now, rumors of the casket's death are somewhat exaggerated. The normally stiff industry is offering consumers a wider range of options, from customized doodads to cheaper models to online window shopping. With families still paying $2,000 to $2,500 on average for a casket--a third of the average bill for the total funeral, which the National Funeral Directors Association says was $6,500 in 2004--there's still plenty of money in building boxes for burial.