NEW YORK – If you thought school spirit meant just plastering your college bumper sticker on your car, think again.
These days, devoted alumni and fans of their college team can show their undying school spirit — in a college-themed casket.
"I don't think any of us can deny the experience education has played in our lives," said Scott Walston, president of Collegiate Memorials, which sells the caskets for 46 schools throughout the country. "When families choose the casket, they're setting the stage to conjure up memories to celebrate who the person was."
John Shannon, who sells University of Kentucky caskets at Shannon Funeral Service in Shelbyville, Ky., attributes their popularity to a recent movement to personalize people's final resting place.
"Sometimes caskets will also include the person's hobbies to show this is what Mom or Dad was about," he said, adding that personalization brings a unique response from mourners.
"People will walk into the funeral home and they'll chuckle," Shannon said of his experience with a Kentucky casket. "It's funny for people to see, but it makes sense because in one case, the family said the deceased had a whole room of the house dedicated to the University of Kentucky."
Walston, whose Macon, Ga.-based company sold about 250 of the spirited coffins last year, recognizes that college-themed caskets are unusual, but said he makes sure to "market the product in a tasteful way."
Collegiate Memorials doesn't sell directly to customers, but through local funeral homes in areas where there is a demand. Walston depends on funeral directors to promote the caskets because "they know the families and their communities best." The company also makes urns, registry books and monuments with schools' insignias.
The caskets, which cost from $3,250 to $4,900, are created in the school's colors with its insignia embroidered in the lining. (Regular caskets of similar styles cost from $300 to $400 less than collegiate caskets.) Colleges collect royalty fees of 8.5 percent to 10 percent per coffin in addition to annual licensing fees.
The University of Nebraska-themed casket was the top seller in 2001 with 50 sold, according to Walston. But, he added, "We have a lot of interest from other schools like Alabama, Kentucky, Auburn, Oklahoma, and the University of North Carolina."
Walston speculated that the Nebraska casket was a top seller because of increased media attention his company has had in the state. But Doug Allen, a funeral director at Fusselman Wimore Funeral Homes in southeast Nebraska, said the school's fans were finding their own ways to personalize their funerals even before Collegiate Memorials came along.
"We took the regular caskets down to the local auto body shop and had them painted victory red," he said, describing his version of the casket made for "Big N" devotees. "We'd also include a logo from the university inside the casket."
But these days, Allen orders the professional-looking coffins from Collegiate Memorials rather than resort to his homemade versions.
This year, Walston plans to increase the number of schools he represents to more than 200. While the caskets are popular in the South and Midwest, he hopes to expand to Ivy League schools in the Northeast.
"Basically we'll license to any school that has alumni interest in the caskets," he said.
Pat Walker, operations manager of Duke University Stores, said requests for caskets increased since Duke alumni heard about other North Carolina universities having them.
"It's definitely different than a T-shirt," she added.