These days, life is lived online. Learning. Dating. Work and worship. So why not, in a small way at least, dying?
That is in part the idea driving Titan Casket, a rapidly expanding direct-to-consumer casket company co-founded by Bellevue residents Josh and Elizabeth Siegel. Josh Siegel, an Amazon alumnus, and Titan CEO Scott Ginsberg, a casket industry veteran and another co-founder, hope to build what they describe as “the Warby Parker of caskets,” a Casper mattress for that final rest.
“There was really an opportunity to disrupt an industry and help consumers,” says Josh Siegel, who spent 10 years with Amazon making sure expensive large items sold on the site arrived on time.
“Funerals are changing,” he continues. “The generations that are now planning funerals, your Generation X and millennials, expect to make decisions online.”
The past decade has seen direct-to-consumer companies undercut legacy industries that hadn’t made the jump from brick-and-mortar to online marketplace. Warby Parker did it with glasses. Casper, Helix and others did the same with mattresses. Amazon, of course, started out selling books online.
Titan, with four warehouses, claims to be Amazon’s largest casket purveyor and the nation’s largest direct-to-consumer casket-maker. Ginsberg says the company offers a wider variety of caskets than most funeral homes — he’s a little giddy recalling a purple casket with green interior that recently shipped. The key differentiator, though, is cost.
Having been in the casket business for two decades, Ginsberg describes a system in which a handful manufacturers and large funeral home chains gouge grieving people. While estimates vary, markups between 200% and 500% on caskets are common in the industry. Though customers have had the right under federal law to buy their own caskets, almost all of the 1.5 million people who were buried in 2020 in the U.S. were laid to rest in a funeral-home-bought casket.
In Washington state, consumer rights advocates have succeeded in pushing lawmakers to allow greater funereal freedom. At-home funerals, DIY caskets and, most recently, “green” burials in which a deceased person is buried without embalming or a concrete-lined vault have all been legalized.
Still, Ginsberg says, casket costs are excessive.
“People pay too much for their caskets, way too much,” he says. “And this industry hasn’t really changed in 100 years.”
The funeral industry — suppliers, including casket-makers, and funeral home operators — has become a $20 billion-a-year business, according to industry estimates. But, while America’s death rate is expected to rise as the Baby Boom ages, revenues are falling as more people choose cremation.
As of this year, the average cost of a funeral with a viewing, ceremony and burial was $7,848, according to a study conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association. (Cremation shaved about $900 off that total.) The association’s estimates show annual cost increases have not kept up with inflation.
That’s not to say there isn’t money being made. The “death care services” arm of Hillenbrand, which has been estimated to control 47% of the American casket market, generated $225 million in profits on $623 million in revenue in 2021, according to the company’s most recent annual report.
Those profits, coupled with a trend toward consolidation that’s moved hundreds of mom-and-pop funeral homes into corporate ownership, have led some to the view espoused by Ginsberg and Josh Siegel — that bereaved people are being fleeced.
Dutch Nie sees his industry differently. Nie, a second-generation funeral home operator and treasurer for the National Funeral Directors Association, describes his work as a service to the community. In his case, that’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he and Nie Family Funeral Home & Cremation Services’ staff of seven full-time employees operate two funeral homes.
Direct-to-consumer casket sales aren’t a threat to his business, Nie says. Costco has sold caskets for more than a decade, and, Nie said, most funeral homes have price points suited to their communities.
Nie is skeptical that online outfits can replace the core service funeral homes offer — assistance in grief and in mourning. Having grown up in the business that he’s now inducting his sons into, Nie draws a distinction between the two.
“If you experience loss, you’re going to experience grief,” Nie says. “But mourning is a little different; it’s the external expression of that grief that helps you work through the grief process.
“Filling out forms online will deal with the disposition of the deceased. But it won’t address that human need.”
At Titan Casket, Ginsberg and Josh Siegel contend they’ve found a way to guide bereaved people through casket purchases, as Ginsberg says, “so they don’t let an emotional loss turn into a financial loss.” They, like Siegel’s former employer, focus on timely delivery and customer care while offering caskets priced from $699 to $2,499. Siegel says it is working; the company quadrupled in size over the past year.
“The way Amazon approaches any new business, there’s a lot of lessons to draw, building from the customer back,” Siegel says. “That ethos is no longer constrained to Amazon.”