In the United States, the cost of a traditional funeral is between $8,000 and $10,000 on average, and that doesn't include the price of the burial plot and other cemetery fees. A casket alone runs $2,500 on average, making it the biggest single expense of saying goodbye to a loved one.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of caskets has skyrocketed over the past 30 years (a 250-percent increase), outpacing the inflation rate for other consumer products by more than double.
So why exactly do caskets cost so much? Is it simply the cost of the materials, or are funeral homes taking advantage of grieving customers who aren't in the mood to shop around?
What many people don't know is that they don't have to buy a casket from their funeral home. In fact, it's a federal law that funeral homes must accept all outside caskets, including ones that are bought online or from Costco.
To learn more about the world of caskets and casket prices, we spoke with a second-generation funeral home director and the co-founders of an online casket company aiming to "disrupt" the funeral industry.
There's a Wide Range of Casket Styles and Prices
Douglas "Dutch" Nie is the CEO and funeral director at Nie Family Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nie and his six sisters grew up in a home above the family business, and he and his wife purchased the funeral home from Nie's parents in 2000. Nie's own kids now work there, too.
When it comes to the price of a casket, Nie says there are a lot of variables, which is why he says he can offer families a no-frills casket for as low as $900 to a high-end casket that runs $6,000 or more. The biggest differentiator is the material with which the casket is built, and there are two main types of casket material: wood and metal.
"With a wood casket, you can equate it to furniture," says Nie. "A mahogany, hickory or walnut casket is going to cost far more than pine or oak."
For metal caskets, the less expensive models are made of 20-gauge steel, while the priciest are constructed from semiprecious metals like copper or bronze. For both wood and metal caskets, the quality and details of the craftsmanship — rounded corners instead of welded, for example — will also determine the price.
Then there are other considerations like the material inside of the casket. A crepe interior is going to be less expensive than velvet. For a military burial, the family might want to customize the interior with an Army or Navy seal. All of those upgrades and details can add up.
Nie insists that despite the high average cost of a casket, most funeral homes carry a range of caskets to meet the budget of everyone in their community.
"No one is going to say, 'We only sell Cadillacs here, not Chevrolets,'" says Nie. "We have something for everyone."
Taking On 'Big Casket'
But there could be other reasons why caskets have gotten so expensive. Josh Siegel and Scott Ginsberg are co-founders of Titan Casket, an online casket retailer, and they argue that an outdated business model — they call it "big casket" — is to blame for the high price of most funeral home caskets.
"In the U.S., there are two large casket manufacturers [Batesville and Matthews] that control 90 percent [editor's note: it's actually 82 percent] of the distribution and they exclusively sell to funeral homes," says Siegel. "Because of that structure, they mark up their caskets 300 to 400 percent."
The casket monopoly is only one part of the problem, the Titan guys argue. Funeral directors turn around and tack on their own markups because they know they have a "captive customer."
"For the most part, consumers in these situations don't shop," says Ginsberg. "They go to the same funeral home they've always gone to. It's not right or wrong; it's just what people do. And funeral directors understand people don't shop, which is why they can charge twice as much for the same casket."
The average metal casket costs $2,500, and the average wooden caskets costs $3,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Titan's Siegel says that their bestselling model is the Orion series, which retails for $1,099 and that a funeral home would sell the equivalent model for between $1,800 and $2,400.
Your Rights Under the 'Funeral Rule'
What many Americans don't know is that you have the right to supply your own casket for a loved one's funeral. In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission enacted the Funeral Rule, which aimed to bring greater transparency to funeral pricing. The rule also made it illegal for a funeral home to refuse to handle a casket that a client purchased from a third-party retailer, which now includes online sales.
For a lot of grieving families, they're simply not interested in shopping around for a better deal on a casket, and that's understandable. That's one of the reasons why 82 percent of caskets were still purchased through funeral homes as of 2019. But companies like Titan think that if consumers knew how easy it was to buy a casket online — and potentially a lot less expensive — then more people would buy caskets outside of the funeral home.
Titan, for example, provides free shipping for all of its caskets and says it can reach any destination in the U.S. in one to three days. Another company, aptly named Overnight Caskets, guarantees free overnight shipping to all 50 states. Titan and other casket companies also sell their products through Costco and on Amazon.
The Decline of the Casket Business
Nie, who was past president of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association and is an at-large board member of the National Funeral Directors Association, says that funeral homes are happy to comply with the FTC's funeral rule.
"Families can choose to purchase something online and there's not an issue at all," says Nie. "Our business model is to provide services to families and the casket is just one of the items that can be chosen to ensure that the service is conducted the way a family wants."
Besides, Nie says, fewer people are choosing a traditional burial anymore. According to a 2021 report by the National Funeral Directors Association, the cremation rate of Americans is projected to be nearly 58 percent while the burial rate is projected around 37 percent by the end of the year. By 2030, traditional burial is expected to drop to just 25 percent of all funerals.
With cremation, the body is placed in an inexpensive plywood or cardboard container that is also consumed in the fire. Nie says that maybe in his father's day, funeral homes relied more heavily on marked-up merchandise to make money, but not today.
"With fewer people choosing burial over cremation, it doesn't make sense for a funeral home to rely on a business model based on casket sales," says Nie. "If that was the focus of the business, then you'd probably see more Titans and other third-party retailers."