For the sports fan, souvenirs to die for Caskets and urns with team logos are scoring with some whose loyalties outlive them.

Posted: February 13, 2009

Many people are buried with sports memorabilia.

Fishing rods. Golf clubs. Shotguns.

Even duck decoys.

Being buried inside sports memorabilia is another story.

But now it's possible.

A Phillies funeral casket - the first on view in the region, the distributor says - sits in a showroom at the Kingston & Kemp Funeral Home, just outside Trenton.

The exterior is a lustrous white with wood-veneer inlays, and the handles are in Phillies red, sporting red tassels at each end. Logos are strategically placed above the handles, on a fabric liner, and at the casket's ends.

Funeral director Kevin Dalton props open the half-lid, revealing a large Phillies logo on the inside, above where a loved one's chest would be.

"It's exceptional. The paintwork is beautiful. The embroidery is perfect," he says.

Suggested retail price: $4,499.

It gives luxury box new meaning.

Clearly, it's for "the die-hard fan," manager Shawn Kingston quips.

The caskets are created by Eternal Image, a Michigan company devoted to everlasting branding - its niche in the $15 billion annual death-services industry.

The company negotiates licensing deals, works up designs for urns and caskets, and farms out the manufacturing, chief executive Clint Mytych says. Among the available brands are the Vatican Library, the American Kennel Club, and eight universities. Star Trek and American Cat Fanciers Association items should be out by summer.

But there are limits.

Proposals from licensers for the Three Stooges and Marvel Comics were rejected, Mytych, 27, says.

Although baseball-team caskets were introduced just in mid-December, major-league urns have been out since 2007, with more than a thousand sold nationwide, Mytych says.

Sam Steckline of Red Lion, Pa., purchased a Phillies urn for himself and three weeks ago had Phils skipper Charlie Manuel autograph the red-and-white canister at a sports show in York.

A spot at the top will hold a baseball that Steve Carlton signed in 1979. At an autograph show, the Hall of Fame hurler also inked the urn itself, inscribing it with "To 100 years more before death" and "No. 32."

Upon learning what the object was, Carlton asked if Steckline was kidding.

"I said, 'I'm dead serious - no pun intended.' "

Steckline, a motorcycle-riding 56-year-old who plays second base in a hardball league, recalls trying to explain to his wife, Linda, why he wanted the $799 urn. "She's a little like: 'What did you get that for?' Then she understood."

Since mid-2007, about 150 major-league urns have been sold in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, says Beth Cooper of P&J Cooper Supply, a Barrington distributor of funeral products.

Most, though, went to New York Mets and Yankees fans.

And urn sales are looking skyward?

"Not really," Cooper says. "It's kind of slowed down" after an initial flurry of interest from funeral homes ordering examples to display.

"It is a little bit of an expensive urn, and it is a little bit of a niche market," she says.

More upbeat is Brian Horne, director of the Page Funeral Home in Burlington.

"Truth be told, I think there is a demand," he says. "You've seen people's loyalties toward their professional sports teams."

Page has sold three Phillies urns, one to a woman whose urn held a ball signed last spring by the entire roster, another for a woman once named fan of the year, and one to a man who keeps peanuts in it on his Florida bar.

Eternal Image has shipped about 100 baseball caskets memorializing various teams, Mytych says.

Anyone else in the coffin-branding biz?

Only Collegiate Memorials, a North Carolina firm that represents at least 75 universities.

The rock group Kiss once offered a model. In 2001, Gene Simmons' wailing face-painters sold a Kiss Kasket online, touting it as a watertight party cooler.

Meanwhile, Kingston is patiently waiting in Hamilton, Mercer County, to sell his first baseball casket.

Potential customers tend to smile or laugh.

"Not demand so much as interest" is how he sums up the reaction.

But some fan, sooner or later, will find it a fit, he says.

"Let's face it. There's a market for everything."

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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