When the rich and famous are laid to rest, they’re sometimes in caskets made by the New England Casket Co., a small family-run business in East Boston. Usually, the notables are buried in a stately solid mahogany casket called the Concord, which costs as much as a new car (around $25,000). Muhammad Ali, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Walter Cronkite, Joan Rivers, Leona Helmsley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tip O’Neill all were interred in such a casket, said Louis Tobia Jr., third-generation owner of New England Casket Co. Typically, Tobia doesn’t know who is going into the company’s caskets — it doesn’t sell to funeral homes but to distributors, but in these particular cases, he was privy to the information.
The Concord casket was designed by Tobia’s grandfather, an Italian cabinet maker, with a simple timeless design. He started New England Casket in the 1930s, before consolidation and market decline put the nail in the coffin for many casket manufacturers. Now just a handful of companies control the industry, with smaller manufacturers like New England Casket Co. making a go of it by continuing to produce custom products.
Caskets are usually marked up 300 to 500 percent over wholesale cost, with a $325 casket costing $1,300, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Chinese companies and retailers like Costco have also started offering caskets for under $3,000.
“Even though people say that our business will never die, we certainly have had our challenges lately,” says Tobia. “Unlike other products, like shoes and clothes, there is only one per customer.” The Globe spoke to him about making a living caring for the needs of the deceased.
“I’m in deep into this business. I’m 50 years old so there’s no turning back now. The company was founded by my Italian grandfather when he came over from Avellino, Italy, and began working for a casket company. He decided to start his own company and ended up buying an old train maintenance building across the street from where we are today. We have a thousand square feet with offices on the upper floor and factory floor downstairs. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, funeral directors would send families here to pick out a casket with 75 models on display. Times have changed, so we don’t really need a showroom anymore, but we still have a few caskets here for visitors to see.
“As a kid, I’d pass out schedules to the workers, sweep floors, and stick lumber into the machines.
“Funeral home sales ended in the ’90s and now we sell directly to distributors. Our niche business is that we are really good at making the oddball stuff that is difficult for the big guys to do. Almost half our sales are to Jewish Orthodox, who believe there should be no metal in the casket, just wooden dowels and glue and handles with no hinges. They believe it hastens the decomposition process, having no unnatural items in the grave. We even had a rabbi come in to make sure we were doing it correctly.
“Our most unusual caskets are the sportsman caskets, which have camouflage interiors and elk antler handles. Our best sellers are caskets made of poplar wood because they can be designed many different ways, but are still on the affordable side. Lately, the trend is to customize caskets; we have caskets for golfers, boaters, or military caskets.
“I often get asked why we put so much work into something that is going to be buried in the ground. I equate a casket to a wedding dress.
“The oddest request that I can remember was to make a double-wide casket for a husband and wife who wanted to be buried together. The casket opened up like a clam shell and was extremely wide. I later found out that the wife died first and the husband was healthy and lived for a long time after.
“And one more thing: All the time I’ve worked here, I’ve never laid down flat in a casket. I’ll test them standing up. I have no desire to lay in a casket. I guess I’m a little superstitious. I’ll have a lot of opportunity to lie in one after I die.”