Scott Ginsberg is on a mission to disrupt death. Or at least what immediately follows it.
In his two-decade career selling caskets to Massachusetts funeral homes, Ginsberg got to know the ins and outs of a $16 billion funeral home industry that most people deal with only rarely, and in moments of deep personal loss. And that experience — even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended many of the rituals of grief — led Ginsberg to believe the business of death is ripe for disruption.
So he co-founded Titan Casket — which bills itself as “the Warby Parker of caskets” after the hip online eyewear business — selling caskets directly to consumers, cutting out funeral home middlemen, and saving people hundreds of dollars to bury their loved ones.
“Funeral homes enjoy a 200 to 400 percent markup” on casket sales, he said. “I thought to myself, ‘There is got to be really a better way than this.’ I mean, really, this industry really hasn’t changed in over 100 years. And most people don’t shop funerals.”
Titan is one of a growing number of online casket stores seeking to upend the long-established funeral industry, and are aided by a federal requirement that funeral directors must accept a casket purchased elsewhere by the family. They’re also part of what some call a larger shift in Americans’ perceptions about death, period, amid a pandemic that has changed both funerals and how some people think about the end of life.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the cost of a funeral with burial has increased 6.6 percent over the past five years, and New England is among the regions where fees run highest.
As of this year, the median cost of a funeral with a burial, casket, and viewing in the United States was $7,848, but that doesn’t cover the cost of other services such as a cemetery plot, flowers, and grave markers, which can push costs up above the $10,000 mark. A viewing and cremation that includes a cremation casket and urn costs slightly less: $6,970. A metal casket, according to the association, averages about $2,500.
Most Titan caskets cost between $1,000 and $2,000 and ship for free to funeral homes. The company first launched in 2016, and began selling caskets on Amazon soon after. In the past year it has quadrupled sales and expanded into four warehouses across the country, says co-founder, Josh Siegel. Siegel had been working at Amazon, running the shipping of large bulky items such as televisions, when Ginsberg approached him about starting the company.
Today, Titan claims to be the largest seller of caskets on Amazon, and sells on other online platforms, including Costco and Sam’s Club. Its own direct-to-consumer website offers everything from simple pine boxes for $800 to “the ultimate in luxury,” “fully featured,” Era stainless steel model for $2,000.
It’s where Jason Smith of Milwaukee found a casket for his mother, Susie, who died last month at the age of 67 and always loved the color purple.
“You found it everywhere” in her life, Smith said.
The funeral home he and his siblings went to offered six different caskets, but “none of them was purple,” he said. “We wanted what she would have wanted.”
So Smith, 39, went looking online. Ultimately, he chose a royal purple casket with yellow lining and gold details from Titan. At $1,050, it was less than half the $2,200 price of the one the funeral home offered. And it shipped, tracked, and arrived in time for his mother’s service.
“It means a lot,” Smith said. “In these times of grieving, to be able to know that you got something she would have liked.”
Titan and more than a dozen online, direct-to-consumer competitors are benefitting from the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, a regulation passed in the 1970s which requires funeral directors provide a General Price List of all the items and services they provide. Most important for Titan, the rule stipulates a funeral home cannot refuse a casket purchased elsewhere, or charge a handling fee.
“The legislation recognized that people were being harmed by this industry,” and taken advantage of at a vulnerable moment, said Paula Chasan, secretary of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts.
While the rule has been on the books for decades, consumer habits have changed more recently, said Louis Tobia Jr., whose family ran the New England Casket Company for three generations until a fire closed its East Boston factory in 2019. Two large manufacturers dominate the casket business, he said — Batesville and Matthews International Corp. — and for a long time funeral directors would charge a markup on a casket rather than charge more for the mortuary services they provide. Now direct-to-consumer startups are giving families more options, and cutting in on the market.
“A traditionalist would say it’s changing the American death care practice,” Tobia said. “There’s so much more shopping going on.”
The times are changing too. In 2015, cremation surpassed burials in the United States for the first time, and those numbers continue to rise, thanks in part to factors such as environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions on cremation, and a preference for less-ritualized funeral ceremonies.
Zoom funerals and COVID restrictions gatherings have only accelerated the trend; two-thirds of respondents to a survey by the Funeral Directors Association this year reported an increase in cremations at their facilities since the pandemic started. All of that has been driving down casket sales in the process, and ultimately hurting funeral directors’ bottom lines.
“People are looking for alternative ways to have a funeral and really trying to get a bang for their buck,” Tobia said. “Cremation is much more prevalent than it was 10 years ago, so people don’t find a value in a traditional burial, casket, and a wake. I think people just want to get it done and over with for the cheapest price they can get it at this point.”
Like opticians whose clients buy eyeglasses from Warby Parker, funeral directors have had to adjust to the reality that their casket selection might not be enough, admitted Dutch Nie, a Michigan funeral parlor owner and spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association.
“Caskets are just a small part of what funeral homes do. Our main focus is providing families with meaningful end-of-life celebration,” he said. Ordering a casket online could provide more stress to families if it doesn’t arrive in time for a service he said. “And we’ve found that when people do compare there really isn’t a cost savings.”
But shopping around for caskets may signal a broader shift in how people think about death, posits Chasan of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The pandemic, she said, has forced many of us to face our own mortality in ways many hadn’t contemplated. And the restrictions placed on funeral services during the pandemic have been pushing people to think outside the box — or casket — entirely.
During its annual meeting in November, Chasan’s group shared ways to personalize the end-of-life experience: Cardboard coffins that families can draw on in tribute to a loved one, or DIY services that allow family members to host memorials at home and “personalize the experience instead of handing it over to a professional.”
It’s all part of a growing “death positive” movement, she said, which aims to reorient Americans’ conversations about death much as it has about childbirth.
“It used to be childbirth was something you hand off to the doctor,” Chasen said. “Now people want to experience it.”
That can be by choosing a casket, hiring a “death doula,” or by attending a “death cafe” meetup to ponder interment options (“with cake,” Chasan stresses). Ultimately, she said, it’s all about making death a part of life.