Gabriel T. Rubin
NEW ORLEANS– Teresa McCraig made a stylish exit, buried in a purple casket covered in photos of her dogs, emblems of her favorite teams, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Cowboys, and the logo of her favorite beer, Corona.
“I couldn’t send her home in a casket where people would say, ‘Oh, my mom had that one,’” said her daughter, Mariah McCraig, of Beeville, Texas.
Her mother, who died of a heart attack at age 52, had long taught her to be different, Ms. McCraig said. No off-the-shelf casket would do.
Ms. McCraig was lucky to find Trey Ganem, a former hot-rod car artist in Edna, Texas, who works in a small but growing corner of the U.S. casket market. He and his staff build as many as five customized caskets a week.
The casket customized for pop singer Percy Sledge at his 2015 funeral service.Photo: Bill Feig/The Advocate/Associated Press
For R&B singer Percy Sledge, Mr. Ganem made a black-and-white casket in 2015 with a portrait of Mr. Sledge on the head panel and adorned in music notes. A microphone was mounted on top.
“He always held on to his microphone,” Rosa Sledge said of her late husband, who sang the 1966 pop hit “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Mr. Ganem interviews his clients about the passions, careers and tastes of their loved ones for design ideas. He said he started thinking about it 25 years ago, at the wake of a teenage hunting buddy. He wondered why his friend, who died of a heart condition, was being buried in such a dull casket.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he recalled thinking, “if we had camouflage, or deerskin, to remind us of things he used to do?” The thought turned into a business for him about five years ago. It turned out that Americans also were interested in personalizing the final memorials for their loved ones.
When Danny Wheldon, a retired firefighter in Enid, Okla., died at age 73, his wife, Linda, had one of their neighbors build a camouflage-and-fire theme casket topped with a firefighter’s helmet.
The only instructions Mr. Wheldon had left for his burial were, “Do not spend a bunch of damn money on a casket,’” said his daughter Toni Luetjen, who had qualms about going custom. “At first I said, ‘Mom, this is so redneck. But she said, ‘No, I’m doing it.’ ”
Most people purchase caskets through funeral homes, which typically have contracts with large manufacturers such as Batesville. The Indiana-based casket-maker has started offering to put photos or military emblems on head panels, said Troy Turner, chief of sales and marketing, because people asked.
Teresa McCraig's custom casket.Photo: Trey Ganem Designs
Rick and Shana O’Brien, of South Jordan, Utah, had at first picked a traditional casket for their son Riley, who died at age 21 in a 2010 car accident. Their younger son Shad objected: “That’s not going to work for my brother,” he said. The family picked a casket with elk-antler handles and an outdoors theme to reflect Riley’s love of hunting.
The Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America estimated that 1.6 million caskets were sold in the U.S. in 2015, the last full year of available data. Currently, the average price for a metal burial casket is about $2,400, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Custom ones such as the kind Mr. Ganem makes can run from $1,800 to $16,000.
Kurt Soffe, a fourth-generation funeral director, estimated as many as 90% of caskets sold at his Jenkins-Soffe funeral home in South Jordan, Utah, now have custom details. Baby boomers, he said, “they like things their way.”
Some funeral homes also have started to offer memorabilia for services, including balloons and flower arrangements in the likeness of the deceased.
The married tattoo artists JD and Julie O’Kelly of Portland, Ore., have started building custom caskets. Mr. O’Kelly said it was a natural move for a tattoo artist, whose art eventually gets buried with its owner.
A Gothic-style casket by tattoo artists-turned-casket makers JD and Julie O’Kelly.Photo: JD and Julie O\'Kelly
“It’s like Iggy Pop, staring death in the face and keeping on rocking,” he said. The couple use cabinet-grade plywood with hemlock pine mouldings to fashion motifs in Gothic and pre-Christian European styles.
The ashes of loved ones have found their own special resting places. Online retailers offer cremation urns in the shape of Superman and former President Barack Obama’s head, starting at $600 for the “keepsake size.”
Darien Martinez-Blanco, a Cuban émigré and cemetery counselor in Miami, said some families put the ashes of loved ones in ornate cigar humidors.
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Customized caskets, of course, have a long history. The ancient Egyptians went all out for members of the royal family.
During the Roman Empire, families of the rich and noble commissioned expensive marble sarcophagi, sometimes with their faces substituted for those of gods, a technique called mythological portraiture.
“You have the body of a Hercules, but the head on top is of a wizened 70-year-old Roman aristocrat with saggy jowls, a receding hairline, and five chins,” said Mont Allen, an expert on Roman funerary sculpture at Southern Illinois University.
The impulse is timeless, Mr. Allen said: “It’s about how you would want to be remembered.”
Trey Ganem works on a casket in Texas.Photo: Trey Ganem Designs
Custom caskets can also give comfort to those left behind by tragedy.
Paola Delgado, of Shepherd, Texas, couldn’t bear to bury her 3-year-old daughter Isa in a monotone casket. The toddler died in December, shortly before her fourth birthday, after a monthslong battle with a brain tumor.
Isa had wanted a Peppa Pig birthday party, so Ms. Delgado commissioned a purple and pink casket with scenes of the cartoon character on the side. One showed Peppa happily riding a bike, which Isa never got to do.
“I wanted to celebrate that God made me a mother,” Ms. Delgado said. “I knew Isa wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.”
Write to Gabriel T. Rubin at email@example.com