For Universal Casket, family
and service are central
By Anita Thompson
THE HEADLINES in
August 2004 proclaimed,
“Costco test markets caskets.” The late-night talk-show hosts joked about it.
But to Ed Jones, general manager of Universal
Casket, it was all good.
Not just because the
new business relationship
between Costco and the
60-year-old casket company helped rejuvenate his
family’s firm, but also because
the headlines and the humor created opportunities for people to talk with their loved ones
about their wishes. A taboo topic was brought
out in the open.
“Many parents have taught their children
to be frugal all their lives,” Jones says. “They
don’t want them to spend $5,000 on a casket
when they can get one for $900.”
That was pretty much the same idea
Costco had when opting to carry caskets. It
seemed a natural extension of the value concept—providing members with top-quality
products at reasonable prices. But while the
idea was germinating among the buying team,
Jones had made up his mind.
A three-generation family business, Universal
Casket had built a niche assembling unique
caskets to meet specialized needs: oversize caskets, infant caskets, inexpensive caskets for the
indigent, etc. The company created and delivered these special-order caskets within 24 to 48
hours. But Jones saw the business changing,
with consolidation in the funeral home industry and increased competition. Universal
Casket was ailing.
The company was started by Jones’ grandfather, Edward F. Jones. Living in Chicago, the
senior Jones wanted to move his family out of
the inner city and settled on Cassopolis,
Michigan, a small town centrally located 100
miles from Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis.
He traveled there on weekends and slowly
Once the deal was signed, new challenges
appeared. Traditionally, caskets are sold by
funeral homes and operate as a profit center.
Once Universal began selling to Costco, the
company lost 70 percent of its funeral-home
business, according to Jones. While the
Federal Trade Commission requires funeral
homes to accept caskets from outside sources,
that didn’t keep some from putting roadblocks
in Costco members’ way.
To counteract any problems that members may have, Universal Casket personally
handles all customer-service calls. “We don’t
get ‘do-overs,’ ” Jones explains about the company’s approach to member service. “In their eyes
[the family of the deceased], it is the most
important thing in the world. It’s very personal
to us. You’re not doing business with Universal
Casket, you’re doing business with my family.
We recognize the ramifications if we fall short.”
In addition, as the casket program has
expanded to more Costco warehouses ( 48 at
the time of this writing, plus online at costco.
com), Universal Casket has opened five distribution centers and contracted with local truckers to handle deliveries.
And while Jones plans to expand his distribution network as needed, casket assembly will
remain in Michigan. “We have to see and handle every product,” he says.
Jones sees a positive future for Universal
Casket as a result of the partnership with
Costco. Will there be a fourth generation of the
family running the company someday?
Jones, who has two sons, replies, “The
answer three years ago [before the relationship
with Costco] was no. Now I would definitely
involve them.” C
purchased land, an acre or less at a time.
Eventually he accumulated five acres and
moved his family there.
Edward F. Jones had learned carpentry
skills in Chicago, and in 1947 he turned his
talents to building caskets. “They were delivered by wagon to funeral homes in the vicinity,” Ed Jones explains. With nothing to protect
the caskets for the journey, “they took the blankets off of their beds to cover the caskets before
In 1954, the business passed to the next
generation, Ed Jones’ father, Charles, who at
age 81 is company president today.
According to Ed Jones, when he read an
article about Costco in USA Today in June
2003, a lightbulb went on. “I told my sales
manager at the time, ‘We’re going to sell caskets to Costco.’ ” By October, they had formulated a business plan.
Jones then embarked on a barrage of calls
to Costco’s home office. But because no buyer
was assigned to caske ts as a
category, he didn’t m ake
much headway. So la te
one Friday, he contac ted
the company’s custom er-service line: “I made u p a
put in touch with Se nior
Vice President Denni s
Knapp, who is responsible for non-foods
products. Knapp picked
up the phone. Forty-five minutes later, he
asked Jones to send
him information abou t
Universal Casket and
asked, “Could you
Ed Jones’ family
has been making
for 60 years.
C ompany: Universal Casket Company
G eneral manager: Ed Jones
C ontact at: 17664 Chain Lake St.
C assopolis, MI 49031
P roducts at Costco: Universal
c askets are sold through kiosks
i n select warehouses and on
C omments about Costco:
“We share the same philosophy: Good business will do
good business.”—Ed Jones