Gulfport businessman Jeff Savarese saw the economy take a toll on his Unfinished Furniture Showcase sales over the last few years. So when a friend he saw at an Ohio furniture convention told him about his casket business, Savarese saw an opportunity.
“The economy’s been brutal so I thought it would be something different to try down here,” said Savarese, who also owns a business that sweeps shopping center parking lots at night.
“You don’t have to buy furniture but you have to die. There’s no two ways about it. Your time comes, you’re going,” he said.
An aging generation was another factor Savarese opened Pearly Gates Casket Co. wholesale business about three years ago.
“The baby boomers, which is a huge segment, is getting older now,” said the 61-year-old Savarese. “Most of them are into their 70s and we’ve got a big spike coming up of people who are going to be dying.”
Eighty percent of the caskets Savarese sells are made in Alabama and the rest are imported from China. He sells them to funeral homes around South Mississippi, southern Alabama and on occasion in Louisiana. He said he isn’t aware of another casket wholesaler in the Mississippi Coast region.
He would not reveal his sales figures but said funeral homes sell the caskets for around $2,000 up to $10,000. He places an order with the manufacturers once a month. ”We’ll have on hand 150 to 250,” he said.
Savarese said most caskets he sells are made of metal with about five percent made of wood. Pearly Gates will add some detail work by request. “We will paint it a certain way or get a special color,” he said. Sometimes there are requests for the panels inside the casket to be customized with a photo or wordings.
Caskets come in various sizes, and the standard is 25 inches wide. “Forty-four inches is the largest we ever had to use,” he said. Sales of oversized casket are rare, he said. “We sell one oversized for every 30 regular size.”
Sales have been holding steady for the last year or so, Savarese said but in general, the economy hit the burial business hard in the last three or four years.
“More people are being cremated so they’re using less caskets than they used to,” he said. In response to the increase in cremations, the manufacturers produce reusable rental caskets, which Savarese said he sells on occasion. “The funeral home rents you the use of that casket if you want to have a wake before cremation. The inserts and everything are taken out and new ones are put in for the next person.”
Savarese said he’s aware that funeral related businesses such as his might make some people uncomfortable and said being around a warehouse filled with rows of caskets was a little unsettling.
“Yes, it is sort of strange,” he said. “At first I had to get used to caskets being around but you get used to it. Now it’s like a piece of furniture.”
Savarese keeps an appropriately respectful attitude about his Pearly Gates business, which has three employees. But he said he is looking for one more special hire.
“We’re just trying to find somebody named Peter to answer the phone,” he said. “We just haven’t found anybody yet.”