“Bursting the Coffin Bubble”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
Financial speculation has long been regarded as a healthy, even necessary, part of a market economy: cyclical investment has its downsides (the inevitable “bust”), but during boom-times, new industries are nurtured through capital infusions fueled by little more than euphoria, the irrational belief that an industry can gain value forever. And now, as the country — indeed, the world — struggles to regain economic footing after the deep recession caused by the implosion of the real estate market, another nascent euphoria is brewing — and if history is any indication, this too must burst..
The tech bubble. The housing bubble. And now: the coffin bubble.
“Some people think coffins are a small market,” says Brian Dunham, chief of post-mortem financial artifacts at Goldman Sachs. ”But here’s the thing: everybody’s gonna die. Not everybody is gonna use the Internet, or buy a house, but everybody’s gonna die. Death and taxes, amirite? And the Feds have a monopoly on the second one. They’re really strict about that.”
Dunham has been instrumental in pushing up the market value of several death-related firms, most notably the industry leader Caskets’n'Things. ”We get ‘em cheap, from China,” says Walter Pryzzhic, CFO of the Oklahoma City-based conglomerate. ”Nobody gives a shit about a Chinese casket — I mean, what’s a little lead gonna do? Kill ya?” The red-faced and heavily bearded Pryzzhic slaps his hand against his thigh in mirth, chuckling uproariously. ”Ah, I love my job,” he says when he regains his breath.
The market for funerary accoutrements has been heating up for years now, driven largely by flashy, wealthy televangelists, who consider lavish casket spending to be an investment: what is the funeral of a televangelist except one last occasion to prove one’s holiness? And what better way to demonstrate spiritual supremacy than with a $350,000 platinum-and-teak coffin, detailed with ivory inlay and plush mink lining? The trend has spread to luxury coffins of all stripes: for $1.2 million, celebrated graffiti artist Banksy will tag your casket, and you can be buried in a one-of-a-kind treasure.
“Really,” says Pryzzhic, “it’s about expressing your uniqueness well into the afterlife. And letting future archeologists know that you’re some hot shit.”
Caskets’n'Things has been growing at an enormous rate; their revenue has quadrupled over the last five years, while their sales volume doubled. Meanwhile, their closest competitor — J.M.F. Fine Casketry — has taken a different tack.
“Working with Banksy has been a real coup,” says James Madison Fitzhugh III, the company’s president. ”We’ll be introducing a Damien Hirst model soon, and recently signed Andres Serrano. All limited editions, of course — you can’t expect the artist who gave us Piss Christ to suddenly turn mass-market!”
Fitzhugh and and Pryzzhic occupy two distinct areas on the retail spectrum — one mass-market, the other luxury goods — but, according to Goldman Sachs’s Dunham, each is merely replicating the strategies which made housing such a hot commodity at the start of the millennium.
“Coffins are pretty much real estate for the afterlife, so it’s a natural transition for the market to make,” says Dunham. ”And there’s always going to be a small sector of upscale consumers who will pay out the nose for a one-off, an irreplaceable artistic object — what’s genius about J.M.F. is they’re the first to really apply that sense of luxury to coffins. After all, what’s the point in frugality when you’re dead? Why not blow your wad on a really great coffin? The government is just gonna take it otherwise.” Dunham taps his computer screen. ”I just bought a 0.2% stake in Caskets’n'Things for CalPERS. Largest pension fund in the world. At the returns they’ve been getting, this should shave about three percent from California’s budget crisis. That’s health care for a few thousand poor kids right there. Just because people want to get put in the ground in style.”
And what’s Dunham’s cut of that transaction?
“I get paid appropriate management fees,” he tells me, curtly. ”My compensation is not at issue here.”
Has Dunham bought any product from Caskets’n'Things?
“Hell no,” he snorts. ”They’re the McMansions of eternal housing. I’ll leave that to the aspirational classes, thank you very much.” He taps his keyboard and spins the monitor around on his desk, to face me.
“This,” he announces, pointing at a photo of a fire-engine-red coffin, painted with tropical fish and with a shark’s formaldehyde-preserved head affixed to the top, “is the new Damien Hirst model from J.M.F. Only thirty available in the entire world. That’s where I’m gonna sleep.”
Hirst is a provocateur whose artworks — which have incorporated dead sharks previously — regularly fetch millions at Sotheby’s. What does a Hirst casket run?
“One point eight mil,” says Dunham, matter-of-factly. ”Chump change, really. For a chance to rest in peace? I’d spent a billion.”