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Scott Jagow: A lot of businesses say they're recession-proof. But there's really only one that's recession-proof for sure: the funeral industry. Still, there's a guy here in Southern California who's taking no chances. He is turning coffins into couches. These are coffins people have been in, but not buried in. Caitlan Carroll has our story.
Caitlan Carroll: Vidal Herrera has a dark sense of humor. He calls the location of his private autopsy business "The Body Shop." And upstairs, where he and his staff work out, it's the "Dead End Gym." So it's not surprising that he's started making couches out of coffins.
Vidal Herrera: Funeral directors cannot resell used coffins to the public for burial purposes. They know I'm going to make couches, so they sell them to me under the table for cash.
Herrera buys defective caskets from distributors and funeral homes. Then he tricks them out with custom paint jobs and colorful upholstery. Think hot road as applied to a couch.
They sell for about $3,500 each. Herrera's sold 17 couches since he opened his East LA business six months ago and has orders for more from as far away as Dubai.
Wondering about the customers?
Tod Waters: Um, I mean punk rockers. I grew up around punk rock and hard core. It's the idea that you're, you know, kind of sharing space with like a dead person.
Clothing designer Tod Waters is using the couches in a fashion photo shoot. He designs for rock and death metal bands. Part of what appeals to him is the authenticity.
Waters: So I think it has just, you know, a wide range of . . . I mean most people are going to end up in a coffin one day probably.
Be it kitsch or an urge to look death in the eye while you watch TV, USC marketing professor Ken Wilbur says there is demand for this kind of novelty item. And for those grown-up goths or tattoo parlor owners who want to make a statement, the coffin is an untapped resource.
Ken Wilbur: It's a symbol which has not yet been co-opted by any major brands or marketers. Almost every other cultural symbol we have has been used to express brand meanings.
Herrera knows he's confronting death-defying odds starting a new business in this economy. But, well, life is short.
Herrera: That's it. You just try it. You go for broke.
And if it doesn't pay off? Then, he says, coffin couches will be buried, six feet under, never to be heard from again.
In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.