A tisket, a tasket, no Internet casket

by on October 27, 2009 · 4 comments

Die-hard Halloween fans can find a hearse-load of ghoulish party supplies on the Internet, from Freddie Krueger window silhouettes to a severed arm that hangs from a car trunk. You could even order a casket; maybe use it as a beer cooler. 

One casket hawker on eBay named morbid611 boasted, “Will make a great Halloween prop and even keep it around the house and have fun with it when you have company over [!]  When your neighbors have their cardboard caskets or home made bulky looking box caskets they won’t be able to compare to your real casket.” (Emphasis added. In case you’re curious, the winning bid was $285.)

Unfortunately, in my home state of Virginia, it’s questionable whether I can order one via the Internet. That’s because Virginia is one of  a handful of states that prohibit anyone other than licensed funeral directors from selling caskets. I’m not sure how strictly this prohibition is enforced, though. Some online casket sellers claim they will ship anywhere, but Costco’s casket supplier won’t ship to Virginia.

The evidence is mixed on whether these restrictions increase overall funeral prices. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Law & Economics, Judith Chevalier and Fiona Scott Morton found that funeral directors who face competition from independent casket retailers simply lower their casket prices and increase their prices for other services by about the same amount.  But the funeral directors’ casket prices still don’t match online prices.  The authors calculate that a simple funeral with a wooden casket would cost about $360 less if the customer purchased the casket online.

Dan Sutter, in an article published in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Policy in 2007, reached similarly mixed conclusions. He found that casket sales restrictions do not affect average receipts per death in the funeral industry (one measure of funeral prices). However, three states that had their casket sales restrictions invalidated by federal courts saw receipts per death fall more rapidly between 1997 and 2002 than states where these regulations remained in effect. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Private Enterprise, Sutter found that Oklahoma funeral homes charged an average of 68 percent more than an Oklahoma-based Internet retailer charged for the same caskets.

It’s clear that consumers could save money by buying caskets online. Since not many consumers do, researchers have not found that the online competition has reduced funeral directors’ overall revenues in states where this competition is legal.

But this may change over time. Personally, I plan to haunt my family mercilessly if they end up drinking cheap booze at my wake because they overpaid for my casket!

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