Features

Florence Casket Company Builds on a Tradition That Dates to 1873

Plane Speaking

Bill Hogan

Florence Casket Co. has been making its mainstay products, wooden caskets, for nearly 150 years now. And it’s making them pretty much the same way, as well — by hand. But while this business seems frozen in time in some ways, this unique industry has seen change and evolution — and the company has more than kept pace.

There’s a good amount of history on display at the Florence Casket Co. plant in Florence, as one might expect at a company that’s been making the same product in the same building since 1873, as the plaque mounted near the front entrance proclaims.

Much of it is captured in the photographs hanging in the lobby, the conference room, and Bill Hogan’s spacious and somewhat cluttered office — testimony to the fact that the third-generation president wears quite a number of hats at this venture.

Many of those photos, including those in Hogan’s office, are portraits of first- and second-generation leaders of this unique business, including his maternal grandfather, Russell Christenson, who bought the company with a few of his siblings in the mid-’50s. In the conference room, meanwhile, there are several photos of the vintage horse-drawn hearses the company loans out to area funeral homes for special services — as well as framed newspaper accounts of those funerals, with the hearses featured prominently.

And in the lobby, hanging not far from a framed receipt — dated 1898 and given from the Florence Furniture Co., Manufacturers of Burial Caskets and Undertakers Supplies, to a Joseph Belanger for “boxes” and other materials — are two aerial photos of the factory.

One is relatively recent, maybe a decade or so ago. The other one, a black and white shot … Hogan isn’t quite sure, although he thought he could determine the date if he did a little research. There are a few clues, including an old rail line that’s been gone for decades, and a few cars — compared with the full parking lot of today — that look like they might be from the late ’20s or early ’30s.

Whatever the date is, the building certainly looks different on the outside than it does today — there have been several expansions. On the inside, though, most areas — from the lobby to most of the manufacturing spaces — probably look very much the same as they did back then.

Indeed, to walk into this factory, wedged between houses in a decidedly residential neighborhood, is to almost step back in time. While some of the equipment, including a CNC machine, are new, most everything else in this building is old — as in old world. Which is one way of saying they’re pretty much making caskets here the same way they did when the building was opened, when Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House, and when that picture was taken — whenever that was.

“We could buy machines that would do most of this mechanically, but we do it all by hand.” said Hogan, adding that, on a typical day, roughly two dozen caskets will be shipped out to funeral homes across a territory that covers most of the Northeast.

While in many ways time seems to have stood still at this company, the reality is that it hasn’t. Times have changed in some ways, from the amount of competition — there are far fewer companies doing this now, although some are national and even international giants — to the increasing popularity of cremation, which has certainly impacted demand for the wooden caskets this company specializes in — although demand is still steady.

“As much has cremation has crept in and become more and more popular, there are still a fair number of families that want to have a traditional funeral,” he explained, adding that this is especially true in the Northeast.

Craftsmen at Florence Casket assemble models the same way they were built in 1873 — by hand.

Overall, Florence Casket, while in some respects still doing business the way it did nearly 150 years ago, is also adapting to changing times by diversifying into everything from supplying cremation urns and metal caskets to making specialty caskets, such as oversized models, and even those for pets.

But its bread and butter remains fine wooden caskets, which are in many ways custom-made for each customer. The company’s strategy has been to generate more of the remaining business for such caskets in its territory by “going into untouched corners to find new customers,” as Hogan put it.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited this unique business to learn about a business where demand may be constant, but so too is change and the need to adapt to it.

Going with the Grain

Hogan began his extensive tour of Florence Casket — something he enjoys and does fairly often — in the shipping area, where several caskets, covered by protective wrapping, sat waiting to be delivered to one of dozens of funeral homes in the company’s client portfolio. He spent the next 40 minutes or so explaining the many processes involved with getting them ready for delivery.

He began by rolling open a large wooden door and pointing to a separate building in which vast stores of kiln-dried lumber — everything from pine to poplar; maple to mahogany — are kept. He then took BusinessWest on a journey that covered three floors — the top floor is essentially for storage of finished product — and more steps than one could likely imagine when looking at the final product. Steps that include planing, cutting, gluing, shaping, assembling, painting (staining), lacquering, sanding at many stages along the way, and installation of the interior fabric.

He also introduced some industry terms of a sort, such as ‘ears,’ the wooden pieces affixed to the side of the casket, to which the handles are mounted, and the ‘piece of pie,’ the wedge-shaped (hence the name) piece glued and then stapled into the front of the top of the casket.

Finished caskets are stored on the third floor of the company’s headquarters in Florence and then customized to meet the specific needs of clients.

The craftsmen making and assembling pieces are doing things pretty much the way they’ve been done for decades, said Hogan, as he pointed to some equipment that’s been in use from the very beginning, or so he’s been told.

Again, he knows much more about the chapter in the company’s story that began when his family bought it nearly 70 years ago — but through research and stories passed down, he’s been able to gain an appreciation of its full and long history.

And before giving his tour, Hogan provided an in-depth and quite intriguing inside look at his company and the casket business — which he stressed repeatedly is not the funeral business, although the two have always been intertwined, and were even more so decades ago, as we’ll see.

As for Hogan, he started working in the plant when he was very young; he said his grandfather would put him to work mowing lawns and handling other duties. Later, he worked on the floor during summers and school vacations. After graduating from Castleton College in Vermont, he returned to the family business in 1993, and “I haven’t looked back.”

“When I was kid, I didn’t necessarily picture myself doing this,” he explained. “But it was an opportunity that was presented to me, and it’s the path I chose; it was a good decision.”

Thus, he’s one of several third-generation members of the family involved with the business, and while some from the second generation are still active as well, including a semi-retired uncle who serves as a sales representative in Vermont, most have retired. But they still consult when called upon.

“The whole family has been a great sounding board for me when there’s been problems, questions, cares, or concerns,” he told BusinessWest. “They bring years of experience to the table.”

And there have been a number of matters on which to consult, he said, adding that, while the casket business is steeped in tradition and history, there has been change and evolution and the need to adapt to it.

As evidence, Hogan referenced the ‘showroom’ sign on another door to the building, even though it hasn’t actually served that role in quite some time.

A craftsman finishes ‘painting’ a casket, one of many steps in a very involved process.

“Many years ago — this is before my time, but it’s what I’ve been told — funeral directors would bring families here to look at caskets and choose a model,” he explained. “The funeral director would call down and say, ‘we’d like you to put a polar casket, a maple casket, and a cherry casket into the showroom for the family to see.’”

Later, funeral homes established their own small showrooms, he went on, adding that, when a particular model was chosen, the funeral director would call Florence and order a replacement. More recently, many of those showrooms have been given over to other uses, Hogan noted, and a number of funeral homes are displaying casket options through miniatures or simply photos on the internet, neither of which is ideal, but that’s nonetheless reality.

So after a model is picked, a call will be placed to Florence Casket for that item, he said. While the company has several of each type of casket (meaning the wood it’s made from) in those third-floor storage areas, it essentially makes each item to order, especially with the handles and interior fabric, which separates it from those competitors who stockpile inventory in huge warehouses.

“Our specialty is we manufacture everything as needed,” he explained. “Everything going tomorrow, we’re working on today; you can change colors, interiors, handles — you can customize them more than you can elsewhere.”

Board Meetings

Making things to order brings its own challenges, he went on, adding that, while some times of the year are busier than others — and winter in the Northeast, for whatever reason, probably the weather, is one of those times — work, like death itself, is constant and unpredictable.

“People don’t stop dying because it’s a holiday or because it’s the weekend or because the weather is bad,” he explained, adding that this makes the December holidays, and the time off that comes with them, sometimes difficult to navigate.

It also makes Fridays and Mondays, positioned on opposite sides of the weekend (when the business is closed), more hectic than the other days of the week. “So Mondays are essentially three days all wrapped into one.”

Indeed, BusinessWest visited on a Friday, and Hogan was interrupted several times to advise those making deliveries in time for the weekend.

Those deliveries are made almost exclusively within a Northeast territory that stretches from roughly Atlantic City, N.J. to the Canadian border, a coverage area chosen because it can be served from the Florence location with a fleet of trucks and vans.

As noted earlier, that territory was once home to a number of companies that made wooden caskets, but now there are just two — Florence and a company in Athol called Cambium Corp. There was a third, New England Casket in East Boston, but its factory burned to the ground almost a year ago, and the company is still in a state of limbo, said Hogan.

Meanwhile, there are a few large national players, including Batesville Casket Co. and Matthews Aurora Funeral Solutions, both based in Indiana with additional locations in other states.

New England Casket sold primarily to distributors, while Florence does not, which explains why the company hasn’t picked up much business as a result of that devastating fire, said Hogan. Instead, as noted, it has responded to the impact of cremations and other forces within the industry by working to add new customers within its territory. It has done this by going into those untouched corners that Hogan mentioned, and also stressing what differentiates it from other makers, specifically the quality and customization of the work.

This was on full display during Hogan’s tour, which essentially took the process from start to finish. On a tour that might take 40 minutes, he stops and explains each step. In real time, it probably takes about 40 hours, he noted, with some woods, such as oak and cherry, being more porous, thus needing more time to dry between coats of lacquer.

One of the last stops on the tour, the third-floor storage area, shows the depth of the customization process. Indeed, for each type of wood there are several different colors, or stains, and a variety of models. In cherry, for example, there’s everything from the Tanglewood to the Monticello to the Washington, each with customizable handles and panels. In mahogany, another of the higher-end options along with cherry, there are four options — Baldwin, Nantucket, Newport, and Simsbury — again, each one customizable.

Hogan said one of the keys to the company’s success is to have options for all tastes and price ranges, with mahogany and cherry at the high end, pine at the lower end, and woods like poplar, perhaps the most popular, in the middle.

Indeed, there are more than two dozen options in poplar, Hogan said. “We sell a lot of them because they’re reasonably priced and the finishes are brilliant.”

Bottom Line

Those models are part of the ongoing story at Florence Casket, which is closing in on 150 years of making both wooden caskets and history.

Those framed photographs in the lobby, conference room, and Hogan’s office reflect this history, but the real story is written on the shop floor, where they’re still doing many things the same way they were done in 1873.

The same way they did in that black-and-white photo — whenever it was taken.

It was Ben Franklin who said that, in this world, “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” For 147 years, this company been a constant as well.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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