What do I need to know about coffin building before I start?
May 7, 2009 3:40 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know to become a coffin builder? Are there regulations I have to follow? How should I sell them? How much should they cost?

I am an experienced woodworker who is looking to branch out with a product that I can try to sell both locally and online.

My angle would be simple construction, somewhat roughly hewn, locally sourced lumber (pine or spruce) at what would hopefully be a reasonable price.

What is a reasonable price for a coffin like this?

What sort of interior finish do these things need? Does it have to be all silky and puffy? Would anyone ever go for a bare wood box? Do you need special latches or locks on these things? What am I missing?
posted by davey_darling to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
ColdChef is a funeral director, and if he doesn't weigh in here you should definitely MeFi mail him.
posted by nitsuj at 3:57 PM on May 7, 2009

Would anyone ever go for a bare wood box?

I can imagine a (small-ish) market for this. I'm an example of a person you would market to. For me, the last thing I want is some kind of bulletproof, sealed container for my body. It's just a preference, based on my idea that I don't want my body to be preserved or enshrined (if that makes sense). In a perfect setting, I'd be buried in the ground -- no coffin at all, and none of the cement stuff that encases coffins in some areas, and not embalmed. Just me, in the ground. I guess I think it's more natural that way, more the way it was intended.

However, my first consideration is whatever will make my family happiest. For example, I know my sister would be upset with cremation (which is another choice I like for myself), and even though it's not quite rational, I would never choose something that would cause her anxiety.

If I brought it up that I wanted a plain box, I'm sure that would go over ok, but if it was too roughly hewn, with splinters on the inside, I think it probably would not. In the end, many people believe that the dead person does not need the body anymore, but there's a certain need to preserve it anyway.

Somewhere in there a marketing angle, I think. If demographics matter (and I suspect it might), I'm a female Gen-Xer, Christian but not at all a fundamentalist/charismatic/proselytizer/whatever, from the South.
posted by Houstonian at 4:20 PM on May 7, 2009

Well there are a few similar products out there. I know my mom request a plain ol
pine box (she is still with us tho).

Chk out this link.
posted by beccaj at 4:20 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

You'll most likely want to check with your area's environmental agency, I would imagine different states (well, provinces in your case) have different laws with regards to anything buried and left in the ground. Some kinds of finishes may be bad for groundwater as it eventually rots, etc.

The style may depend on the sort of funeral the deceased will be having. I do know that Jewish law specifies a very plain box, so if someone is planning to have a strict Jewish funeral that would be the case. I believe quakers have a similar rule, but I could be mistaken.

This Salon article may be of interest as well.
posted by Kellydamnit at 4:26 PM on May 7, 2009

I learned from this previous post that the mid hundreds of dollars is where solid wood coffin prices start; there are a lot of products hovering around the $1000 to $2000 mark; and they go up to tens of thousands (although IMHO you'd be foolish to spend that much). I gather at the cheap/eco-friendly end you can get $100 cardboard coffins.

There are also people who will sell you plans and kits for coffins; and there are plans you can download for free, just google "coffin plans".

You'll need someone more informed than me to tell you if there are any specific mandatory coffin standards; I do know, though, that while it might be funny if a home-made chair falls apart during use, it would be decidedly unfunny for a coffin to fall apart during use. Also, if you make extra-large coffins, you'll want to make sure everyone else in the burial process will be able to handle your coffins.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:30 PM on May 7, 2009

Q. Who would buy it?
A. The Jews! (and many other people).

Jewish law mandates a simple pine box, and even though the Jewish community is varied in cultures and beliefs, many Jews opt for simple wooden coffins. I'm sure many non-jews will also appreciate a simple, well made and eco-friendly coffin.
posted by ladypants at 4:34 PM on May 7, 2009

I like your idea.

I wouldn't mind a coffin made of reused shipping pallet slats.
posted by glycolized at 4:37 PM on May 7, 2009

How it's Made did a section about casket/coffin making.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 4:56 PM on May 7, 2009

You might also see if you can market through an eco-cemetery (I'm sure there's a term of art for this) - the kind of place where bodies are interred with little or nothing between them and the soil so they can disintegrate naturally. Your rough-hewn wooden solution might be a nice compromise for families who know the decedent wanted a minimalist burial but don't feel right going with just a shroud.
posted by lakeroon at 6:59 PM on May 7, 2009

A quick search on "green burial caskets" turned up the Green Burial Council's list of approved caskets and Greenburials.org. I can't vouch for either site, but a look through them might be useful.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:14 PM on May 7, 2009

IMHO I think there are two markets for caskets (excluding those who want specialty caskets for religious or philosophical reasons):

-cheap, inexpensive ones, marketed to folks who feel that a box is a box, and that as much as a departed one is loved, an elaborate expensive box is an unnecessary waste of money and a vain affectation;


-elaborate, expensive ones who feel that the more expensive and fancy a box is, the more love is shown to the departed one.

What you may want to do is, have a portfolio of caskets - ranging from the simple and cheap to the elaborate and expensive. This way you can aim at many different clients.

You asked, Does it have to be all silky and puffy? Would anyone ever go for a bare wood box?

I think many people won't like the idea of sticking their loved one (even though their loved one really isn't there anymore) in a coffin that might resemble a crate. Which is why I think many coffins look elegant and even comfortable.

Alternatively, if you can come up with a fancy looking but inexpensive handmade, natural wood casket that would sell well. The only question then is, can you create them with a reasonable effort that permits you to manufacture them quickly and maintain good profit margins?

Ultimately all of these are market research decisions. You may indeed wish to talk to some funeral home directors and get their feedback.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:46 PM on May 7, 2009

N-thing the eco/green/etc. aspect
posted by aniola at 7:58 PM on May 7, 2009

What do I need to know to become a coffin builder? Are there regulations I have to follow? How should I sell them? How much should they cost?

Be careful. Some American states have laws against selling homemade caskets (due to the reasons specified above: safety, quality, environmental concerns). In Louisiana, for example, it is legal to build your own casket, or to give one away, but it is illegal to manufacture and sell caskets without also being a licensed funeral director.

Here are some problems you may encounter:
1. There are restrictions between when someone dies and when they must be buried, un-embalmed. It's usually 30 hours, which is not a lot of time for a family to make the decision to purchase your casket, pay for it, you to construct it, and then for the funeral director to bury it (another requirement is usually that a licensed funeral director oversees a burial. In most places in the US, this is non-negotiable.)

2. So your market would be pre-need. Which means that you have to market and build caskets for people who have not yet died. (Ah, but grandfather is ill and probably won't live another month---trust me... I've seen cases where people make pre-need and end up dying ten years later.) Which means that you've got to store that casket until they need it.

3. Storing a casket requires you to consider elemental changes. Inexpensive, untreated wood can warp and change. Tight fittings may loosen or crack. If you have one set of handles break off of a casket while in use, you'll not only be out of business, but in serious legal trouble. (this happened at a funeral I conducted recently where the family provided a homemade casket. For legal reasons, I had them sign a waiver saying that we weren't responsible for the quality of the casket.)

4. A plain, simple, unadorned box is what most people will tell you they want for themselves. But here's the real question: what are they going to buy when the person going in the box is the love of their life? Or their mother? Or their child? Because the one who is alive is the one who's ultimately going to be responsible for the choice of casket. Most people say that a plain wooden box is all they want, but when it comes to choosing a casket for someone else, money is no object. And, actually, when you look at it like that, the casket is not really FOR the person who is dead. It's for the person who is still alive.

5. When building these boxes, keep in mind how sturdy they're going to have to be. Sturdy enough to support the weight of a 300pound person at least (because as a salesman, you're not going to want to ask, "Well, how fat a lady was she?"). But the wood can't be so heavy that six grown men can't carry the weight of the body and the box. This is the major flaw of most handmade caskets. They're heavy as all hell with weak handles. This is not an easy problem to overcome. The more reinforced they are, the heavier the box becomes. It's also going to have to be lowered into a hole...sometimes on ropes. So weight is going to be a huge factor.

6. Which brings us to fancy wooden boxes. Ones that don't look like shipping crates. Once you buy the materials, figure in the manpower, and take account of the cost of advertising and casket storage, and overnight shipping, you're going to have to sell them for several thousand dollars to make them profitable. I sell a wooden casket for around $3900. But it's not a plain box, it's more like a fancy piece of furniture. How can I reasonably charge that much? It's got a guarantee of craftsmanship, backed by a firm that's built caskets for many generations. Plus, I have quite a bit of overhead to cover and the price of the casket is a place where I can reasonably mark-up my product. How can I sleep at night? We charge much less than other firms and provide excellent care. Plus, it's a family business, not backed by a multinational corporation. And there's not many of us left.

In theory, your idea is not a bad one. And I'm not trying to rain on it. Check your local regulations and requirements. Don't expect much help from funeral homes in advertising your product and be prepared for them to aggressively resist your wares. You are, in fact, cutting into their profit margin. Legally, a funeral home cannot refuse a third-party casket, (at least in the US), but they can easily put you out of business for poor workmanship.

Good luck with your efforts, feel free to ask me for any follow up.
posted by ColdChef at 8:59 PM on May 7, 2009 [5 favorites]

Jewish casket pricing
posted by ColdChef at 9:13 PM on May 7, 2009

Oh, and not to add to my above tales of woe, but it's important to mention: most families don't have the cash on hand to pay for caskets at the time of need. These days, most people pay for funerals with insurance, which means that you may not be able to collect for your caskets until weeks after the funeral is over. As a businessman, I'd strongly advise against that.
posted by ColdChef at 9:17 PM on May 7, 2009

I have read of wooden caskets, made with quality materials and good workmanship, being sold "pre-need", and used as book cases or curio cabinets. Presumably, everyone knows what to do at the time of "need", to convert the casket to the final use.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:56 AM on May 8, 2009

How can I reasonably charge that much? It's got a guarantee of craftsmanship, backed by a firm that's built caskets for many generations. Plus, I have quite a bit of overhead to cover and the price of the casket is a place where I can reasonably mark-up my product. How can I sleep at night? We charge much less than other firms and provide excellent care. Plus, it's a family business, not backed by a multinational corporation. And there's not many of us left.

Pardon my candor ColdChef , (and this is a bit off topic) but what's a funeral home's typical markup on a casket? i.e. the wholesaler sells it for $X, and what does the funeral home sell it for?

I had to deal with a funeral home director recently, to help organize the funeral of a family member. I challenged his cost workup and assumptions, and I saved my family money. He wasn't happy.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:19 AM on May 8, 2009

but what's a funeral home's typical markup on a casket?

Varies wildly, based on many factors including popularity, materials, trends. For example, I stock a lot of inexpensive caskets with a low markup because I live in an economically depressed area. So, the markup on those is much less than the fancier caskets I sell less often. We have very few high-end caskets (in fact, I buried my most expensive casket this spring--over $10,000--when I buried my father. We've had that casket for over 15 years without selling it once. We aren't reordering it. It was sad to lose dad, but we were happy to get rid of the behemoth casket.)

Re-reading my answer from last night, I see that I was almost entirely negative. So, here's a little positive feedback on your idea:

1. Yes, there is absolutely a market for plain, wooden boxes. Many people express an interest in simplicity, but aren't pleased with the idea of cremation. Your market will primarily consist of people wanting to spend as little as possible.

2. As far as marketing goes, you may want to reach out to hospices, charities, and churches. Make the inexpensive nature of your product the main selling point. If you can do it in a way that doesn't reflect poorly on the funeral industry, you may even pick up a few funeral professionals. My most economical casket is right at $1000, but there are often times when it would be nice to have just a wooden crate to bury an indigent person or a abandoned body.

3. I like the idea of selling the caskets pre-need, but having them serving a purpose until it's needed (wine rack, bookshelf). I have a local sexton who keeps his handmade casket in his living room as a coffee table. If nothing else, you can sell them as a novelty.

4. If you make a casket that's a bit fancier, you may want to consider Halloween as a good time to sell to haunted houses and such. Pay attention to detail. I'd totally buy a casket that had skulls branded all over it or a flame job. Make memorable caskets.

5. If you live in a area that's very "do it yourself" consider having a basic casket kit that can be purchased for a lower price, or offer your services to assist in "building your own."

6. Back up your product. If you sell a casket to a family, attend that service if it's open to the public. It's a nice personal touch.

7. You can't go wrong by appealing to a. Christians, b. sports fans, c. veterans of the armed services. Cater your designs to these demographics.

Again, best of luck and let me know if I can help you in any way.
posted by ColdChef at 9:07 PM on May 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't think Ontario has the strict embalming law that ColdChef is referring to (the time between my daughter's death and her unembalmed burial was at least three days). However, it DOES have a law that all funeral homes must have a selection of inexpensive caskets (or coffins) on site for consumers to choose. You might find selling directly to funeral homes for this purpose worthwhile, so they have a cheap model on display. Some use the word coffin to refer the the hexagonal shaped (broader at the shoulders) boxes and caskets to refer to the four-sided boxes common in North America, just in case people are confused by your terminology.

I wonder too if you coffins may be more popular in areas of Ontario with ethnic enclaves such as Brampton. Most funeral homes have wonderful staff that would be happy to talk to you, as would their governing body The Board of Funeral Service. Another group that would be worthwhile to contact would be Federation of Ontario Memorial Societies. I wonder too if you may be able to sell a few dark-stained ones to the goth home decor community. These would be decorative and not as reinforced for strength.
posted by saucysault at 4:53 PM on May 9, 2009

Oh, and my daughter was buried in Ontario a simple white wooden coffin, the entire funeral cost about $500. I think actually we were only charged the cost of the coffin with no other fees though. Children's coffins would be quicker to make and smaller to store with less need for re-inforcement. Fortunately the market is smaller for them though.
posted by saucysault at 4:59 PM on May 9, 2009

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