Millennials are often considered a controversial generation, known for breaking with tradition and allegedly killing off industries that were enjoyed by previous generations. But when it comes to planning for a funeral, no one – regardless of what generation they are from – is exempt. Arkansas native Joel Schmidt isn’t a millennial, but he’s shaking up the traditional casket industry with his company Glory Boats. This Little Rock-based business makes fishing boat caskets.
“I have noticed, just in talking with the guys who keep the glory boats in their funeral homes, that little old widow in her 80s or 90s will walk in and see the glory boat in the showroom and they go, ‘Oh, that’s cute. He loved fishing.’ And then they turn to a traditional casket and say, ‘But put him in one of these,’” Schmidt says. “I think the baby boomer generation, my generation, is going to be the oldest people alive right now who are willing to break with tradition enough to customize and personalize this last big event in their life.”
Today, there are all sorts of ways to be buried. Schmidt even says people in California are being buried in mushroom suits – fabric impregnated with mushroom spores so that the fungi immediately begins to take the body apart. Schmidt says that he won’t count out millennial, when marketing his product, either.
“We had a young fellow who was 29 years old and lost a horrible battle with brain cancer.” says Schmidt. “He saw us and put up a picture on his Facebook page telling his dad, ‘That’s what I want.’ So, when his time came, his dad called me and said, ‘Can I come see it?’ We invited him to the house to take a look at it in person, and he said, ‘Oh, I see what he’s talking about. Okay, send it on up to the funeral home.’”
The idea for Schmidt’s business, which he still describes a startup, came from not knowing what his dad’s wishes were for when he passed away. His father fell off a ladder three years ago, and the incident made Schmidt realize he had to have a long, heavy conversation with his father. To lighten the mood a little bit, Schmidt offered to bury his dad in his fishing boat.
“I looked up on the internet to find him a casket like a fishing boat. Surely someone makes something like that. I thought it would be so cool to show him,” he says. “We couldn’t find it. Nobody made it. And we’re going, ‘You know what this means; we gotta make this thing.’”
Thus the idea of Glory Boats was born. And fortunately, Schmidt’s father is still with us.
Though Glory Boats is an Arkansas company, Schmidt’s first customer came from next door in Tennessee.
“I just knew this was going to be an Arkansas focused product. People in Arkansas were going to get this before anyone else because, you know, we’re all friendly, redneck-hunting-fishing people here,” he explains. “Surprisingly enough, the first one sold was in Tennessee. We sold half a dozen units in states all around us before our first one in Arkansas.”
Part of the marketing strategy at Glory Boats is to take caskets to big fishing and hunting expos. Schmidt says his favorite thing is watching people’s reactions.
“It’s so fun to watch people’s expression when they figure out what they’re looking at,” he says. “The young people get it first, and they’re like, ‘That’s perfect! That’s what I want.’”
Each glory boat can be customized, but Schmidt recommends customers make plans in advance.
“Even though everybody in the [funeral] industry is telling all of their customers to get that planning done early, probably 89 percent of people who pass away, pass away without a plan,” explains Schmidt. “So, that means we usually receive a call from someone who says they want a glory boat, but ask if we can have it there in 24 to 48 hours? The answer is yes, we can. But that precludes us from doing a lot of customization. We can quickly put a registration number from the current boat. A lot of people want us to do that, so we do. It kind of personalizes it a little bit. But other than changing and picking which interior, anything that’s outside the half dozen we currently offer in stock, means we have to add a couple of weeks to source that material.”
Schmidt says his company’s public service platform is to plan. “Pre-arrange, pre-plan, get it down on paper, save your family a lot of headache and heartache at the time of your demise, and make sure they have all of the details they need to know that you want,” he says. “That’s a really important thing. I wish my mother had done it seven years ago when she passed away, but she did not. We encourage people every chance we get to pre-plan.”
Right now, Schmidts’s primary business is still photography, and he will figure out how much more time he and his small crew can dedicate to Glory Boats when it begins to “crawl and walk on its own.” With school coming back in session he will have less time for his budding casket business because he also works with 30 schools. But there is also a bit of seasonality to the funeral industry, as he’s learned. “During the winter time, more of us get sick and pass away. It’s just a natural thing. Especially more of our elderly folks pass away in the winter time.”