Mark J. Zeabin has lived the aphorism that every cloud has a silver lining. "A lot of things in my life happened through tragedy," explains the 25-year-old Canadian entrepreneur. During his third year at art school, when he discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant, he started to ponder how he would support his impending family. A few months later, in January, 1997, Zeabin's beloved grandmother died. So, together with his father, Zeabin built her a coffin. And that's when he came up with a business idea. "Why should you use a casket for only one day and pay $5,000 for it?" Zeabin reasoned.
Later that year he borrowed money from his father, surviving grandparents, and the Canadian government to start Casketfurniture.com. The site offers to "reduce the burden of a high-priced funeral with unique alternatives." And unique they certainly are. Zeabin designs and sells online entertainment centers, couches, display cases, and pet boxes -- all conspicuously wide at hips -- that can be converted into caskets upon the purchaser's death.
Surprisingly, Casketfurniture.com has turned out to be a grim reaper of cash. ("We are growing!" screams a headline on the site). And unlike the vast majority of dot-coms, the company became profitable last year. The business already employs Zeabin's father, mother, brother, and several workers. The male members of the family take care of the woodwork, while Zeabin's mother does "the bedding," he explains. And loss leaders will never be a problem for the company. "Our business is basically the reverse of any other business. We don't have the two-for-one specials," he says.
A LIFE AFTER DEATH.
Display cabinets and bookcases, which can be converted into coffins by removing the shelves, have been the best sellers thus far. At $1,975 per unit, the hand-crafted cabinets are made of "...western birch with an ebonized interior and natural lacquer finish on the outside and shelving." Transforming the units is simplicity itself, according to the Web site: "Removable shelving and base allow for simple conversion into its toe-pincher-style coffin counterpart."
With coffins flying off the shelves, so of speak, Zeabin -- the CEO of Casketfurniture's parent company, MHP Enterprise -- has heavenly plans. Since roughly 2.6 million people die every year in the U.S. alone, he figures his company can grab a nice chunk of the casket market by offering value and convenience, as well as an appealing selection of woods and styles. If all goes well, Zeabin thinks Casketfurniture.com could go public in two to three years. He is already talking with investors.
But here the plot thickens: There's one threat to this vision of worldwide casket-furniture dominance: a U.S. competitor, YourCoffin.com. The rival site has received 5 million hits since its inception 10 months ago -- traffic that Zeabin caustically attributes to a pair of fetching "blondes." Actually, one of the Web-site models is a brunette, but that's beside the point. Clad in Old Glory bikinis, "The Coffin Twins" are shown admiring an example of the company's handiwork on the site's front page, as well as starring in an animated graphic that captures them demonstrating some innovative uses for the company's products.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX.
YourCoffin.com even boasts a feature section that details 101 alternative uses for a coffin, including turning the wooden box into a tree house, tanning bed, ironing board, outhouse, and toboggan. (Users in a hurry to get to the Other Side might find something to speed them on their way in another of the suggested uses: a gun rack.) If Web surfers click on a link, they can even see the casket cuties sporting matching smiles on their sun-tanned faces as they slide down a snowy slope in a nice, varnished piece of pine.
Co-founder Don Styph 53, came up with the list 30 years ago, when he was a marketing major pondering a case study involving a Montana casket company. As his mind wandered, his thoughts turned to the lack of closet space in his Indiana University dorm room. Bingo! The coffin-furniture plan was born. Why a coffin and not a nice shoebox? "You are not going to get a lot of people excited over a box that has no personality," is Styph's matter-of-fact response.
The idea didn't come to fruition until last year, when Styph, now a lawyer, proposed it to client and friend Brad Miller, 50, who owns Fort Harrison Products Corp., a furniture manufacturer. With gun-cabinet sales declining, Styph suggested convertible coffins. Miller called Styph "an idiot," but accepted his pal's $7,000 investment, bought a coffin-making manual, and retooled his production line.
YourCoffin.com got its start in May, 2000. Thus far, the site's T-shirts, which feature a picture of the Coffin Twins, is YourCoffin.com's best seller. But the company also has sold several hundred pieces of coffin furniture, as well. Coffee tables, which go for $479, are the most popular big-ticket item. Students and funeral directors probably make up the majority of those buying coffin furniture, Styph says, explaining that they purchase them "for personal, funny use." A nationally known comedian also placed an order through the site, although Styph won't disclose the gagster's identity.
His product makes "a great conversation piece," says Styph, who adds that YourCoffin.com has already filled two custom orders: for a phone booth and a coffin-shaped double bed. Styph himself is the proud owner of a piece of highly functional convertible coffin furniture that sits in his living room. "One of these days I'll be buried in my coffee table. But I'll have to have to get the mug stains off it first," he jokes. He also wants to get a phone booth for his dining room, but has yet to overcome his wife's vehement opposition. "She wants a more traditional funeral," says Styph.
Bigger questions loom: Is one online coffin-furniture company all this cutthroat market needs? Are two online coffin-furniture outfits the equivalent of five Web sites trying to sell pet food? After all, Web retailers have taken savage beatings in recent months, and venture capital has all but disappeared. But the online coffin business appears to be different. Both companies are growing, and each hopes to boost its profitability significantly in the next year.
Dark clouds loom, however. A war of words has already broken out between Casketfurniture and YourCoffin. Zeabin accuses his downmarket competitor of copying his idea on the cheap. But in the end, he claims, the quality workmanship of his products will trump YourCoffin.com's assembly-line motif. Nonsense, responds Miller, who counters that his basic burial model sells for $389. That's less than half Zeabin's average charge for his ritzier convertibles. As for the charge of copycat tactics, Miller emphatically rejects it. "We never knew he existed," he sniffs.
Both sites have seen their biggest sales around Halloween. That implies convertible coffins remain largely a novelty item. Meanwhile, Styph swears the general public will come to embrace the utility of furniture that can take pride of place at a funeral. "The vast majority of the population at some point is going to need a coffin. They might as well buy one now and have fun with it," he says. If you say so, Mr. Styph.
By Olga Kharif in New York
Edited by Alex Salkever