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ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

A clear mind and a bargain coffin

Costco's discount caskets suggest that Americans will deal with harsh realities as long as we understand the cost-benefit analysis.

January 04, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

IN A GRIM 2005, there was an unlikely new bright spot: the coffins at Costco in Torrance. Costco has been rolling out its discount-coffin kiosks in stores since last year, starting in Chicago, but L.A. didn't get one until this fall.

It's almost poetic that the coffin stand should make its debut in the South Bay, an amalgam of mostly neat, small, surf-conscious towns that feel more inured to the unpleasantness of death and decay than any other heavily urban area of Southern California. Certainly it beat a debut in health-challenged, homicide-troubled Watts or South L.A., where the bright advent of cheap coffins, however pragmatic, would be in spectacularly poor taste.

The good omen I see is not simply that Costco was gracious enough to sell its coffins west of the 405 (but really, thanks). It's that corporate marketers are now confident that they can trump one of our biggest social taboos with that most American of inventions: the almighty bargain. How better to cut through the emotional reticence around death and dying than with a quality steel casket, delivered in three days, for under a grand? The most feared symbol of death, peddled not in a discreet television ad by a man in a suit but literally out in the open, touchable, self-serve, under fluorescent lights. Talk about getting clarity.

Sure, funeral services offered by places of worship and traditional mortuaries aren't included in the price, but everybody knows it's the casket that costs. Like the food at a wedding reception, it's the centerpiece, and if you can secure it at a decent price, you're more than halfway there. Costco's attempted end-run around the psychological walls and religious anxiety most of us have around death is simple, reductive and awfully persuasive. I'm as skittish about the subject as they come but also an avid shopper, and I found myself reflexively perusing pictures of samples offered by Universal Caskets. And I don't even have a Costco membership.

Such naked truth in marketing would serve us well in other areas where taboos and emotion cloud our judgment and cost us money, like electoral politics. People voted for George Bush because he was likable, but after five years of a ballooning federal budget, tax cuts for the rich, tax breaks for big corporations and notable downsizing of programs for the middle class, poor and disadvantaged, you'd have to say that Bush is a bad deal for most consumers. He and his policies are like that set of encyclopedias you bought because they caught your eye and they were new, but less than halfway through paying the installments you realized you didn't need any encyclopedias in the first place.

WHAT WE need is less political campaigning, with its big, manufactured emotions, and more nakedly consumer-oriented policies for ordinary people who base so many critical decisions on their wallets. Big business makes its decisions based on cost all the time, but we voters lack the information to comparison-shop candidates and to make smart political purchases. When it comes to politics, there's no Costco-style marketing.

That's because when it comes to political representation, Americans almost completely suspend their shopping sense and vote identity, a complicated notion that involves hope, values, expectations, ethnic fealty, fear of the Other -- in a word, emotion. It's the puzzle Thomas Frank gets at in his book "What's the Matter With Kansas?," which considers the reasons why blue-collar Midwesterners who were clearly suffering the negative effects of Bush's policies kept voting for him.

The truth is that identity comes at a price, and the question is whether that price has finally gotten too high. It has. But in the save-now culture of Costco, an increasingly definitive part of our national culture, high prices have long been an affront to an easy life and, now, to an easier death. Call it the lone upside to the general Wal-Martization of America: If shoppers in Torrance and other Kansas-like, coffin-enlightened places can vote their budgets and not some slippery ideology, it's hard to imagine that Bush and his ilk have much more shelf life.

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