It's a Living

November/December 1998

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It's a Living

Photo: Scott Varley/North County Times

Peter Wales Nadan always wanted to start his own business. He used to brainstorm ideas with Barry Taira during late-night pizza sessions in law school at UC-Davis. Then after brief stints as attorneys, they saw their opportunity -- the future was in discount coffins. Wales Nadan still laughs at his mother’s response. “Oh, my God, you went to three years of law school to sell caskets?”

Yes, but not any caskets. Discount caskets. Wales Nadan and Taira opened their funeral store, Caskets and Urns For Less, in a San Diego strip mall in May 1997, selling at much lower prices than funeral homes. Taira came up with the idea of a discount casket store when a 1994 Federal Trade Commission ruling opened competition in the funeral industry. After a year of researching the fledgling market, the partners invested $35,000 each and became casket salesmen.

Wales Nadan, ’89, never imagined that he would sell coffins for a living but then he thinks of the product as a widget. “We see ourselves as business owners, not funeral business owners,” says Wales Nadan.

They opened a second store in March in Oceanside, Calif. Each outlet has more than 40 different caskets and urns and seven model headstones on display. Wales Nadan oversees the small San Diego store nestled among an Indian restaurant, pet groomer and chiropractor, while Taira runs the Oceanside outlet.

Between the two operations, they’re open seven days a week and have a 24-hour hotline number that rings to a cell phone after hours. “We’re sort of all-things-funeral,” says Wales Nadan. Their caskets range from $380 cloth covered particle board to a $2,795 mahogany coffin. They can also special-order any casket on the market, buying from the same manufacturers that funeral homes use. They are still building the business, selling only about 15 caskets a month from each store and supplementing their incomes with savings.

But they feel they are beginning to understand their market better. Buying a casket isn’t like buying a car, says Wales Nadan. “The only thing that matters is if it looks nice.” Boxes are made of wood, steel or bronze, and lined with velvet, twill or crepe. Some caskets are overlaid with religious scenes like the Pieta by Michelangelo or da Vinci’s Last Supper. “Some people think it doesn’t cost enough and they feel guilty,” says Wales Nadan. “We tell them how much you spend doesn’t equate with how much you loved the person.”

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