Caskets yesterday, today, tomorrow - Interview with Joe Weigel
Is there such as thing as trends in "casket fashion;" and if so, what's "hot" these days?
Significant cultural, personal and industrial trends and changes are redefining our society and they do impact funeral service. People in North America are getting larger; more and more families are asking that the funeral service be personalized; and the cremation rate continues to grow.
For the past several years, the number one new product request from customers has been for additions to our line of plus-size and oversize caskets, which we introduced a couple of years ago.
We had about 35 models between the two (plus-size caskets fit in a standard vault; oversized caskets require an oversized vault), and about a year ago we increased to more than 50. Funeral directors told us these families want personalization, too, so we added personalization options available on our regular caskets to some of the models in this line.
There is one interesting thing we have noticed for a number of years in terms of casket colors. We buy our paint from the same company that most auto manufacturers buy their paint from, and if a certain car color is popular, usually about three to five years later, that color becomes a popular choice for caskets.
Of course, we would probably never offer "spitfire red" as a standard casket color.
But I'd like that color!
Like so many other requests we get from customers for caskets painted in colors such as Harley Davidson orange or John Deere green, we would certainly be willing to make it for you in our custom shop.
Batesville's company history (on the Web site) mentions that at one point the company stopped making wood caskets entirely and then started making them again in the '70s. Was that in response to consumer demand?
That's correct. To recap, when Batesville Coffin Co. was acquired by the Hillenbrand Co. in 1906, it was making wood coffins, which evolved into wood caskets. In the '20s and '30s, we started dabbling in metal, and just before the war started, we found a manufacturing process that allowed us to produce metal caskets very cost-effectively.
During World War II, we stopped making both metal and wood caskets to save precious resources for the war effort. We were making a lot of the old cloth-covered cardboard caskets. After the war, we focused almost exclusively on metal caskets; in the' 50s and '60s we did not make wood caskets.
We resumed making them in the mid- '70s as a result of customer input. In fact, we now offer a complete line of wood caskets made using premium wood veneers and structurally sound engineered wood in addition to our solid wood casket line.
Have there been any product changes to appeal to particular religious or ethnic markets?
Just a few years ago, we got back into the business of manufacturing caskets for those of the Jewish faith. The caskets have to be manufactured in accordance with the tenents of their faith, including no work done on the Sabbath, no use of metal in the production and no use of glues containing animal fats.
Other religious and ethnic markets have expressed a desire for more personalization, and we have found we can address these requests with features such as tribute panels, including designs showing the Chinese symbols for long life and Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as LifeSymbols designs, including the Our Lady of Guadalupe and Going Home themes.
As the spokesman for a casket company, what's your reaction to the "it's not about the box" mantra we hear so much these days at seminars and conventions?
It's never been about the casket. The focus of funerals (visitation, service, committal) is on the living and how, with the help of the funeral professional, the family can honor the life of someone who was loved.
And while it may not be about the casket, certainly the casket can and should play a pivotal role in the funeral. We try to build value into the products we offer so the family can feel good about selecting them, and the unique personalization options we offer can playa role in creating that meaningful funeral experience.
As I understand it, "it's not about the box" is repeated to funeral directors over and over because many of them in the past didn't charge enough for their services and tried to make up for it in the casket sale. As cremation rates rise, funeral directors must react by charging properly for their services. Casket manufacturers, for their part, are reacting by selling urns and other cremation products. Is the profit going to be the same for the manufacturers, though? I guess Hillenbrand could focus more on its health-care products. How do you see casket companies responding realistically to the changing financial situation?
That's a very interesting question. I think part of the answer lies in the fact that we realized more than 12 years ago that cremation was not a fad, it was a growing trend, but the important thing we try to communicate is that with cremation, every element of the traditional funeral—a visitation, a service with the body present, a burial—can be the same.
We are doing everything to try to ensure that those elements remain, because we have a deep-seated belief that a meaningful funeral not only honors the life of the deceased but also takes the family along the first steps of the grieving process.
That's one of the reasons we value our relationship with Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who for years has said it's important that the family begin to mourn the death and celebrate the life, and that this happens through events such as the visitation and service.
I personally believe that without those elements you cannot effectively move through the grieving process. When you experience the death of a loved one, as I did several years ago when my father died, you see how the elements of a meaningful funeral help you and your family through the process.
What do you think about the funeral homes that have gotten rid of display rooms, showing the family products via catalogues or computers? Do you see that as a problem at all?
We do realize people are becoming more technologically focused, so we have almost a stair-step approach to help funeral directors determine what level of technology they want in the funeral home.
The first step is replacing the binder of product photographs with digital images updated every six months that can be downloaded onto the funeral home's computers.
The next step up is Batesville setting up and hosting (for a fee) a Web site that gives the funeral home an Internet presence and shows families the caskets available at the funeral home.
The third step is a kiosk that allows families to not only select the casket they want but also digitally "assemble" it with personalization options to see a picture of how it will look.
The pinnacle of what we have available electronically or technologically is our planning software the funeral director can use in making arrangements. It handles the front-end work, including printing death certificates, and at the back end can connect with an accounting package.
So do you think you offer enough different ways for people to view your product that people saying, "I'm getting rid of the casket room" is not a problem?
If they so choose to replace it, that's certainly their right, though we like to think funeral directors will use these systems to complement the display room.
We have always suggested, back when the movement to use cut casket displays came along, that funeral directors have a full-sized casket on site, if for no other reason than a casket is something families don't select every day—or every year. People select a casket every 12 to 15 years, and they need to see it to appreciate the craftsmanship involved and how our personalization features work.
If you want to have fewer full-sized caskets so you can show more casket personalization options and how they can work together—to give the consumer more information—that's great.
So you see value in keeping at least some full-sized caskets on display?
That may be more of a Joe Weigel perspective than a Batesville Casket perspective. But given the fact that caskets aren't selected as frequently as other consumer goods, consumers need to see a full sized casket, especially to really understand and value some of the features we offer.
What led to Batesville's touring display room?
That's our Honoring Lives Tour Center. I can't tell you the number of times we've had funeral directors from small, independent firms come to Indiana to learn what's new, walk in the door and get a cell phone call saying the mayor's died or something else has happened that requires them to get back to their businesses right away.
So we said, "If we can't bring them to Batesville, let's bring Batesville to them." We've been delighted with the response. Not just funeral directors but entire funeral home staffs, as well as mortuary school students—who usually get a special tour at night—have toured the traveling display.
So the tour will be continuing?
What about the competition to North American casket makers from manufacturers in other countries, particularly the Chinese?
It's certainly no secret that casket manufacturing is no longer limited to just North America. We continue to heed the advice that John Hillenbrand gave his son, John A. Hillenbrand, shortly after acquiring the Batesville Coffin Co. in 1906:
"Concentrate on serving your customers first. You will have the greatest chance for long-term success if you build your business on a philosophy of mutual trust with your customers."
Do you think the Chinese casket companies present a big threat to American casket companies?
I can't speak for the other casket companies, but what I can tell you is we strongly believe that there are several factors that make Batesville an important part of many funeral home operations. We build a quality casket with innovative, patented personalization features they can get nowhere else and, just as important; we have a distribution system that's one of our crown jewels.
I know of no profession more time sensitive than the funeral profession, whether at the funeral home or the cemetery.
What do you see ahead in the casket market?
The PR director at Batesville may not be the best person to predict the future of the casket market. I'm sure there are other people in funeral service who can also shed some light in this area.
What I can tell you, though, is I'm firmly convinced that funeral directors and cemeterians will continue to play a very important role in the funeral process and that we stand prepared to help them create meaningful funerals for loved ones.
However fast the cremation rate rises, we plan on being a very important part of the funeral profession moving forward.