When you die, you won’t be around for what happens immediately after, which is probably for the best. But in all likelihood, other people will soon be there, setting in motion a machinery of death, disposal and, eventually, grieving that will whir to life the moment you breathe your last. One of the strangest parts of the business of dying is the casket—an extraordinarily expensive, excessively sturdy, satin-lined box designed to hold the most impermanent thing that belongs to any of us. Now, a direct-to-consumer casket company is promising to help consumers buy “designer caskets at revolutionary prices,” as its sales materials put it. Funeral industry experts told Motherboard that its business model is both intriguing and potentially plagued with some very, well, earthbound concerns.
The company is Titan Casket; though it’s been around for several years, in the past few months it’s generated a modest avalanche of press for its promise to be, as co-founder Josh Siegel memorably put it in several interviews, “the Warby Parker of the funeral industry.” In simpler terms, that means that customers buy caskets from Titan’s website and have them delivered to the funeral home of their choosing— or, in rarer cases, to their homes or death doulas.
At first glance, caskets are a curious place to start a funeral business, given that traditional burials are rapidly declining. That said, “three million people pass away each year in the US and still choose caskets,” Joshua Siegel, one of the company’s three co-founders, told Motherboard. He added that the company plans to fundraise for the first quarter of next year and from there “move into new product categories: urns, vaults, flowers and expanding our eco options. Customers are asking for these things.”
Titan was founded by Scott Ginsberg, a Boston-based casket entrepreneur who launched the company on Amazon in 2016; he teamed up with Siegel and his wife Elizabeth, the company’s third co-founder, in 2018. Siegel previously worked for a decade for Amazon, in the department that oversees the delivery of heavy and bulky items. The trio has shot to public attention recently through what Siegel calls “the direct-to-consumer playbook,” focusing on SEO and digital marketing, and making sure the company’s caskets can be bought not just on Amazon but on the websites of CostCo, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. The pandemic hasn’t been a boon to their business in the sense that more people are in need of caskets, Ginsberg told Motherboard, but in that more people are shopping online. “It’s changed the way people shop,” he said.
The comparison to Warby Parker generated a round of hilarity on Twitter, but Siegel says the company is not, for instance, suggesting that people try on multiple caskets and send back the ones that don’t work.
“Warby saw an industry where there was one manufacturer who controlled manufacturing across all brands and one distribution channel,” Siegel said, “and because of that industry structure, pricing was very high and selection was limited at the point of sale. That’s the same thing with caskets. There are two large manufacturers. They only sell to funeral homes. There just aren’t options for customers, so they’re marking a distressed purchase that ends up being very expensive.”
Caitlin Doughty is an author, mortician, and the founder of the Order of the Good Death, a funeral reform society. She’s also a co-owner and funeral director at Clarity Funerals and Cremation in Los Angeles. While she agrees that there are a multitude of problems in the funeral industry, she’s less than impressed with Titan’s model, which she points out is far from new.
“Direct-to-consumer casket companies have been around for years,” she told Motherboard via email. “Notice they don't say they're the ‘Costco of Caskets’ because Costco has been selling caskets in the same way since the early 2000s.”
“I think Warby Parker is the wrong comparison,” she added. “Beyond the obvious that you can't try the caskets and send the ones you don't like back, the caskets themselves are the same cookie cutter, environmentally detrimental models used by most funeral homes.” (Siegel responded, “We have an entire eco-friendly section of our site,” and that, when it comes to the products they manufacture themselves, “we try to take steps to make them eco-friendly.” Ginsberg said that can, for instance, involve powder-coating caskets, which releases fewer emissions than other kinds of casket-painting.)
“Fundamentally, you’re not doing things that differently,” agreed Jeff Jorgenson, the managing owner at Elemental Cremation and Funerals, a green funeral home in Seattle, and the co-owner, with Doughty, of the funeral home in LA. Titan, he said, is doing something “really cool” and genuinely needed, but he, too, is politely skeptical about some of the particulars of their business model.
The appeal of buying a casket at home, Jorgenson told Motherboard, is obvious: It allows for personalization and less pressure than if you’re sitting in a funeral director’s office flipping through a book of caskets under their watchful gaze. “We live in a society where the amount you spend on a gift directly translates to the size of your love,” he said. “And this is the final gift, right? So in the confines of your home and your computer and your spouse and your family you can make choices that are more natural and more comfortable. And for that I love what they’re doing.”
Doughty added that buying a casket online involves a level of built-in price transparency that the traditional funeral home may not be able to offer, and that it speaks to Gen X and Millennial customers who expect to be able to shop online, read reviews, and compare prices. “Most funeral homes are shrouded in mystery,” she wrote. “Some funeral homes don't post their prices anywhere online–though there is a push for the Federal Trade Commission to require it as we speak. You can walk in for your appointment and discover mom's casket is going to be $6,000 and other services $7,000 and cemetery costs $10,000. You'd never make a $23,000 purchase of a car by just showing up at a car dealership, having never Googled anything, and learn the Honda Civic mystery price the day-of. Especially if the same Honda Civic is $5,000 less across the street.”
Conventional funeral homes, Doughty added, will likely object to the Titan model, for the simple reason that it cuts into their bottom line.
“Most conventional funeral homes would prefer if you don't order caskets online because their markup on caskets is high,” she wrote. “The high markup is a holdover from an extremely old model of selling funerals where the assumption was that every family wants embalming, viewing, fancy casket, hearse, burial, etc.” To cover that high overhead—as well as other expenses, like the mortgage on the funeral home and the staff who run it—there’s often large markup on caskets, she added.
But both Doughty and Jorgenson say that model is quickly becoming obsolete. “Data shows us that there is steeply declining interest in the ‘full traditional’ funeral with all the bells and whistles,” Doughty wrote. “For families who don't want to pay north of $10k for a funeral, buying a casket online can be a great opportunity to get the same casket for a lower price.” That’s due in part to the so-called Funeral Rule, the FTC regulations that, among other things, allow you to buy a casket somewhere other than the funeral home.
“Funeral homes aren't allowed to charge you a handling fee (or any fee) for accepting the delivery of your casket purchased online,” Doughty wrote.
If Titan’s model isn’t exactly groundbreaking, neither is the conclusion that the funeral industry can be avaricious, unscrupulous, and sometimes oriented around taking advantage of grieving people. That came to the public’s attention in a comprehensive way courtesy of the writer Jessica Mitford, who published The American Way of Death in 1963. Mitford wrote of the genteel scammery of what she called the “Gracious Dying” industry, the agglomeration of hard sells and emotional manipulation tactics that convinced grieving families they needed to spend thousands more than what they could afford to put their loved one to rest. (One of the more grotesque inventions of the funeral industry at the time was the idea of the “memory picture,” the half-baked pop-science notion that families needed to arrange their loved one in the exact right style, and capture them in the most flattering possible way, before sealing the coffin lid forever, to aid their own healing process and avoid long-term psychological problems.)
Even the term “casket” itself is an invention of the funeral industry, as Mitford wrote, the same group who replaced “undertaker” with “funeral director” and “hearse” with “coach” or “professional car.” (Technically, however, a coffin does differ in shape; it has six sides and narrows at the bottom; but the fact that it’s been largely replaced in common speech by a word that’s viewed as more genteel is a different matter altogether.)
At trade shows and in industry publications, Mitford reported, funeral professionals strategized about how to get customers to spend more, particularly on caskets. One large company, SCI, rigorously trained its Australian employees in the art of “casket selection,” giving them a script to recite as they guided grieving families through progressively more expensive caskets, ending with a glowing recitation in front of the Hanover, priced at nearly $3,000. (“Allow your family as much time as they need,” the instructions added, “But ensure that you do not leave them in the room. Read their body language.”)
The casket itself—its improbable sturdiness and deathless durability—is arguably another unnecessary innovation. For many hundreds of years, Jewish communities have buried their dead in simple pine coffins designed to biodegrade quickly, an innovation now taken up by the “green” funerals that have grown in popularity in the last few years. Traditional Muslim burials take the concept one step further: The dead are wrapped in a shroud and deposited directly in the earth, their bodies laid on their right side and their faces towards Mecca. Both practices seem to do the job as well as a casket, which tends to be made of finer materials than a coffin, like mahogany, and features niceties, like a small pillow, that the occupant likely won’t get to enjoy all that much.
At the same time, this is a particularly chaotic moment for the funeral industry, and probably one well-suited for a new business. Funeral homes, Jorgenson says, are already reeling from the pandemic, not because there has been an unhandleable flood of death, but because the supply chain disruptions have impacted funerals.
“With the way overseas shipping is right now,” Jorgenson said, “the distributors I’ve used that have their production in China, it’s impossible to get caskets from there.” Supply chain bottlenecks are particularly urgent when dealing with death, he added,.“When you’ve got dead people you’ve got a week or less to get it. I can’t wait for you to get it off the boat.” Jorgenson has shifted to all caskets made in the US, though he says he rarely sells them, given that the vast majority of customers opt for cremation. He’s curious about whether Titan would, for instance, be able to replace a casket quickly that shows up damaged: “If it shows up with a huge gash in the side of it, which has nothing to do with Titan, but the delivery company, and you want to order another, how long does it take for someone to replace a sweatshirt in a torn bag? It takes weeks. That’s the question. If this thing shows up damaged you don’t have a turnaround to have a new casket tomorrow.” He’s not trying to dissuade people from ordering a casket online. (“I’m game for it,” he said.) But particularly with the postal system as unreliable as it currently is in the U.S., “This is probably not the best idea on a tight timeline. There’s no wiggle room there.”
Siegel responds that the company has four warehouses “that we’re scaling to meet most metropolitan areas in one to three days. Our damage rate is less than 2%. I don’t know what it is when funeral homes order themselves. If there is an issue our job is to make sure clients are happy. So we can replace it right away.” Those are “rare cases,” to begin with, he said.
COVID also upended the normal timing of when, during the year, people are more likely to die. In a typical year, Jorgenson said, “Death is very regular and sales are very regular. We don’t have a lot of flux. Covid turned things upside down on the death rate about when and how it happens.” For instance, there was no normal seasonal surge of death during cold and flu season.
In all, Jorgenson said, “It became very chaotic. We’re still trying to—everyone in this industry is on rubber legs at this point.”
Enter Titan, which had the fortuitous timing of launching its website in January 2020. The experience of scrolling through the site does have an absurdist element to it, so closely does it resemble the experience of shopping for a direct-to-consumer toothbrush or mattress. You can take a quiz to find out what casket is right for you (the quiz answers only small number of questions before getting your email address), design your own casket from a range of hues that include “orchid” or “gunmetal,” or, for the customer who likes an element of continuing education, click over to the “Titan Casket Mourning and Grief Information Hub.” The hub features some types of grief that might be right for you—disenfranchised, anticipatory—and promises to offer articles about the stages and expression of that grief, as well as Bible verses that might be helpful. Each of these action items is, for the moment, accompanied only by the phrase “[Link to learn more].” (The link itself remains missing for the time being; Siegel and Ginsberg say that portion of the site is still being built out, and that they plan to write more content geared towards their customer base.)
Titan also has extremely good SEO on Amazon, something that its co-founders say is not related to the fact that Joshua Siegel used to work there. Searching for “casket” on the site brings up its products first, and searching for any other casket company by name also brings up many rows of sponsored Titan products first. “There’s no special relationship with Amazon, we’re just using the same seller tools available to any seller,” Siegel said. “In some ways Amazon is a hard place to do business as a heavy bulky seller, which I'm aware of.”
But while the process of buying a casket online might feel somehow ridiculous—might seem to render it as meaningless as choosing a toothbrush of the right softness—the fact is that caskets are consumer products, and ones that some of us need and even want to buy. “We want to emphasize that this is a service business,” Siegel told Motherboard. “We’re mission-based. Sometimes it comes across as we’re selling another widget but that’s not the ethos we have as a company or what we’re trying to do. You spend all day talking to families having one of the most vivid and meaningful weeks of their lives and our job is to be there for them.”
For many people, the chance to bury their dead correctly, in accordance with their spiritual or family traditions, feels like the last thing we can do in this world for those we love.
It’s also nice to not go broke doing it. From that perspective, Jorgenson said, he’s glad to see Titan helping to make the process slightly more affordable. And the cavalcade of marketing around Titan, he hopes, might encourage younger people to talk to their loved ones—and think for themselves—about how they want their remains to be dispatched when they die, to avoid guessing or having to patch something together at a time of unthinkable stress and grief.
“Talk to your damn family,” he said, emphatically.
“The funeral industrial complex has long wildly overcharged the poor and marginalized for death services,” Doughty told Motherboard. “Everything is overpriced in the funeral industry and there is basically no help at the federal or state level.” While the Warby Parker comparison Titan uses might seem, like some, to be an indication of the gentrification of death services, she added, “I would argue the funeral industry can't be gentrified because the industry itself was the ultimate gentrifier.”
“Overall I'm pleased to see more online options, especially if they are a cost break for families,” she wrote. “But what I'd like to encourage people to do is eliminate ALL funeral products and then add back only what they really desire. We shouldn't be moving in the direction of more junk to buy and call it progress. You don't need an urn, you don't need a casket, you don't need a memorial tree. Can you desire those things? Absolutely! But make sure you're purchasing what is meaningful to you and your family, not what society or a funeral home is encouraging you to buy.”