Beyond the Grave

E-Commerce Crosses Into the Next World

It was only a matter of time. The Internet has irrevocably changed our lives. Was there any reason to expect it wouldn't also change our deaths? Well, yes. The 'death care' industry—the curious name for the business of corpse disposal—has had every reason to resist change. Death isn't a trendy business. The last great shake-up in death care took place after thousands of Americans viewed an impeccably embalmed President Lincoln occupying an ornate mahogany casket. Plywood coffins, living-room funerals, and au naturel body display went out the door; by the end of the century, funeral homes were a fixture in the typical American town. Honoring the dead got expensive, and death became big business. According to Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited, published in 1998, the total average cost of an adult's funeral in this country is $7800.

But as the boom in e-commerce adequately illustrates, if you can sell it, you can sell it online. This makes funeral directors very nervous. The Internet promotes a special brand of rough-and-tumble price warfare; funeral directors, on the other hand, are accustomed to customers with little appetite for bargaining. For years, a general collusion between funeral directors and casket manufacturers insured that interment was always a seller's market. The top three casket makers sell only to licensed directors, and several states (though not New York) have laws making it illegal for anyone else to sell a casket. Funeral directors recoup a great deal of their expenditure through casket sales, and this circumstance, says Lamar Hankins, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, allows directors to rig the market at the expense of the consumer.

"There's been an abundance of price gouging, and not just with caskets," says Hankins. "One of the funeral chains in Austin bumped up their embalming fee by 250 percent. There's just no excuse for that." Of course, a virtual embalming would leave something to be desired, but what the Web can do, Hankins points out, is educate the consumer. The Funeral Consumers Alliance site, for instance, provides information on casket alternatives (cardboard!) and posts price guidelines for funeral services. Currently, online casket retailers make up only about 1 percent of total sales. But now that 30 percent of seniors are online, with more on the way, that figure is sure to increase. This won't drive funeral directors out of business, but it will cut into their profits.

"Internet retailers have no building, and they don't have the same need for recovery of business costs," says Bonnie Tippy, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. The advent of independent retailers—online and off—has already forced down casket prices. But caskets are not the point, Tippy says. "I think that as soon as we reduce one of the main rituals of life to such a dollar-and-cents issue, then we're negating the importance of it."

Which isn't to say that funeral directors are ignoring the Internet entirely. Tippy admits that, "like other types of Main Street businesses, funeral directors have been slow to recognize the importance of the Web." But most would like to use technology to provide value-added services, like Webcasting a funeral ceremony for friends and families unable to attend in person.

A few companies want to offer much more. HeavenlyDoor focuses on "preselling" funeral services. On its site, the would-be dead can find the nearest mortuary, comparison shop for funereal accoutrements, and link to various businesses in their area. And that's not all: HeavenlyDoor features "virtual visits" to loved ones' grave sites and an online obituary. Eventually, HeavenlyDoor would like to provide one-stop shopping for funeral services, from crematoriums to funeral homes to casket sellers. Another site, the California-based Plan4ever, is competing to provide a similar package. It currently hosts a "virtual garden" where obituary and "guest book" copy runs against a screen shot of mountains or palm trees, or, in the instance of the celebrity garden, the paparazzo's flashing camera.

But wait, it gets weirder: Targeted at artists, writers, and similarly otherworldly types, The Final Curtain (slogan: "Death got you down?") plans to build a worldwide chain of graveyard–art museums, wherein its customers will design their memorials according to the most whimsical of whims. One customer (not Damien Hirst) wants a perpetual video feed on his rotting corpse. The Final Curtain is now soliciting artist submissions; the winner will receive—you guessed it—a free burial plot.

Still, says Tippy, the Internet can offer the dead, and their survivors, only so much. "Someone still needs to take that phone call at 3 a.m., get dressed, go get Grandma, take her somewhere, and get her prepared. Someone has to bury the dead."

 
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