So you're going over to a friend or neighbor's house for drinks to celebrate Halloween. The centerpiece in their family room is a large wooden crate with an oddly familiar shape--narrow at both ends, wide at the middle--that they use as a cocktail table. After the third Martini, the hostess removes the top from the "coffee table," lies down inside the box and explains that when she dies, the box will be used as her coffin. Your reaction, please?
Such people comprise the target market for Bert & Bud's Vintage Coffins of Murray, Kentucky. This is not a Halloween joke--co-founder Roy "Bud" Davis is dead serious about helping people make a personal statement at their own funerals, and have a little fun while they're still around. "From the outset," says Davis, "it's been my mission to custom build coffins that are truly works of art and that make some kind of personal statement about the person who will be buried in them."
Founded in 1994 by Davis and close friend Albert "Bert" Sperath, B&B's main target is the so-called "pre-need" market: people over the age of 55 who have "an independent streak, a sense of humor about their mortality, and the practicality to plan ahead and be ready when their time is at hand." Of course, you never know when such a thing may come in handy--any American Lit major can tell you that Queequeg, the Native American steersman in Moby Dick, lugs his own coffin everywhere aboard the ill-fated Pequod. After the ship goes down, the narrator, Ishmael, uses the coffin as a flotation device and thereby escapes a watery grave.
There are other markets which Bert & Bud also target, such as:
- Civil War re-enactors: "They spend tons of money on uniforms, weapons, horses and other items to do things as authentically as they can--it seemed logical to assume they would also want to be buried authentically";
- Heavy-metal music fans and Ozzy Ozbourne wannabees: "Mostly these are Goth kids who want something big enough to sleep in, but they usually cannot afford our coffins." Prices range from $550 to $2,000 and up, still cheap when compared to the coffins offered by the rock group KISS to their most loyal fans, which start at $5,000 (www.kissonline.com/shop); and
- Coffins for people's beloved pets: Davis would love to be commissioned to do a long, skinny, "wavy" wooden coffin for someone's pet snake.
Asked to talk about the strangest request he's ever received, Davis replies, "We recently got a call from a member of a small religious group, who wanted a coffin for his pet parakeet done to the sect's strict guidelines--no polymer glues or metal screws, everything natural. When we told him it would take a week to deliver, the customer said 'Well, okay, but we'll have to reschedule the services. I've got people flying in from out of town to pay their last respects." Davis plans to push his pet coffins at several Midwestern pet products shows later this year.
As a result of his work, Davis has become something of an expert on burial laws in each of the 50 states. "You'd be surprised," says Davis. "People think there are a lot of laws about what you must be buried in, but there really aren't. Most states require only that you be buried in some kind of container. Who knows? Maybe you could even get by with a paper bag as your coffin."
Davis has his limits, however, when it comes to custom orders. "I had a guy once who wanted a coffin big enough to sleep in. He also wanted it absolutely lightproof and lockable from the inside. I got a little leery about that one--what if the guy locked himself in and smothered to death? My lawyer suggested I get out of the weird bed business, and I've taken her advice."
Then, of course, there's the challenge of selling to people who aren't really focused on their own deaths quite yet. Davis spends a fair amount of time pursuing high profile customers like rock stars and TV celebrities (one of his coffins--a replica of a Mississippi River steamboat--was featured in a recent PBS documentary), and is in the process of writing a book about his business, with the (tentative) title It's My Coffin and I'll Die When I Want to: How to Build Your Own Damned Coffin and Tell the Undertaker to Kiss Your Cold, Dead A-. Davis also makes himself available as a speaker to groups across the country about the design and construction of coffins, funeral customs and traditions, and related topics.
He admits there really isn't a "gift" market for coffins: "The very first coffin I built was a plain pine toe-pincher style for my cousin Skip, who said he wanted a coffin he could sleep in. When I delivered it, we carried it in the house and put it on his bed. He called me the next day to say it scared him so badly, he had a neighbor help him put it in the garage. When he died a few years later, he was buried in a store-bought casket from the funeral home." So what happened to the coffin Davis made? "I really don't know. He might have sold it at a garage sale. Maybe I should check eBay every once in a while."
While coffins are the mainstay of B&B's business, Davis doesn't deny that T-shirts and other items imprinted with B&B's name and their slogan--"Don't Be Caught Dead Without One"--are big-selling items, especially around Halloween time.
Davis stresses that his coffins and crematory urns should be looked at as art pieces--all are lovingly handmade to the customer's order, and no two are exactly like. While the more bizarre coffins attract a great deal of attention, most are beautifully designed, one-of-a-kind works that reflect the tastes and personality of the intended user. "In life, there is no second chance to make a first impression. At death, your funeral is your last chance to make any impression at all. And your coffin or urn is the perfect vehicle to make one final, profound, personal statement that says, 'This is how I want to be remembered.'" Guaranteed, if you buy one, they'll remember.
Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on the Small Business Television Network at www.sbtv.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.