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Not long ago, a 47-year-old Liberty City guy named Slim died. His brother Larry and sister Helen are unemployed, so they didn't have the money for a standard funeral. What to do? They headed for North Miami's Funeral Store, a drab pink building on NW 119th Street bearing the slogan "Caskets-4-less." It's not a mortuary — the Funeral Store won't prepare a corpse for you. Instead, it's something like Home Depot for the recently bereaved; inside, fluorescent lights illuminate coffins at supposedly wholesale prices. To save you even more money, the Funeral Store's website reminds you "embalming is not required by law."
Discount death emporiums have popped up in low-income neighborhoods around the nation. And they've earned a reputation, as Larry points out: "Overdoses and murders, that's what it's all about. Why else they going to pick a spot in Opa-locka to open up?"
Besides the guy Riptide has spotted walking the streets with a sandwich board advertising cheap coffins — what's that about? — it seems the Funeral Store is a rare option for no-frills casket-shopping. It's owned by lawyer Vincent T. Brown, who also runs traditional funeral homes named Grace and Barrett Fryar. Additionally, Brown was once CEO of the on-life-support Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP) and is CEO of the moribund anti-poverty agency JESCA. "In these tough economic times, you are going to save significant money using us," Brown vows, adding that his coffins range from a $375 model to "the one that Michael Jackson was buried in," which costs $50,000.
But Henry Wasieleski, an Arizona-based industry advocate who runs funerals-ripoffs.org, says casket one-stops invariably refer customers to partnering funeral homes: "The morticians are not going to let anybody, even if you go to a casket store, get away without a $7,000 funeral."
Brown denies that. "We don't solicit business for Grace [Funeral Home]," he insists. "If they choose to go to Grace, that's their prerogative."
One thing is for sure. At the Funeral Store, customer service is certainly lacking. The afternoon Riptide encountered Larry and Helen, they were waiting outside the shop's doors. Turns out the lone employee was on lunch break. The siblings' task couldn't exactly be put off for a day, so they eventually got back into their car and drove off in search of another cheap option.