Living It Up Post-Mortem: Big Spender

Go out in style. The Promethean Bronze casket lets you lie in luxury eternally.
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BOSTON (

TheStreet

) -- The cost for the average funeral, including cemetery expenses, a memorial service and embalming fees, ranges from about $9,000 to $12,000. But the price of an extraordinary funeral costs considerably more, especially if it includes the Promethean Bronze, the top-of-the-line product from

Batesville Casket

, the biggest casket company in the world and a subsidiary of

Hillenbrand

(HI) - Get Report

.

The final resting container for the likes of Michael Jackson and James Brown, the custom-made casket is crafted from 48-ounce polished bronze and hand-polished to a mirrored sheen for 100 hours, according to Paul Holzman, director of product management at Batesville. It sports a "continuously welded bottom," meaning the base has no seams, as well as 14-karat gold-plated handles. The lush velvet interior comes in four colors: dark green, Shasta lily, blue flame and spitfire red. The mattress is adjustable.

The Promethean Bronze casket retails for $25,000.

"It has always been the landmark casket in this industry for when only the best will do," Holzman says. Batesville declines to divulge the wholesale price of the Promethean Bronze. It retails for about $25,000 at funeral homes. (Prometheus, incidentally, was the Greek deity best-known for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans. Zeus punished him by bounding him to a rock, where an eagle ate his liver, which regenerated itself every night so the eagle could eat it again the next day -- not exactly resting in peace.)

For those who would rather go the luxury-cremation route, there's

LifeGem

, an Elk Grove Village, Ill., company that creates diamonds from carbon extracted from a lock of hair or from cremated remains. The company is crafting a diamond from some of Michael Jackson's hair, salvaged on the day the late pop star's head caught fire while shooting a commercial for

Pepsi

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in 1984.

"Michael's hair is first undergoing DNA analysis, so the process is taking longer than usual," Chief Executive Officer Greg Herro says. "We expect to create three diamonds: one for Jackson's children, one for auction and one for the LifeGem Chain of Fame, which has begun with

Ludwig van Beethoven. No other celebrities yet, but we have some new negotiations under way."

LifeGem diamonds range in price from $2,700 for an 0.2-carat gem to $25,000 for 1.5 carats and higher.

"We're having our best year ever," Herro says. "The lower-end orders disappeared as people's credit dried up. But the people who can still afford it are buying the big items."

Both Batesville and LifeGem were hawking their wares this week at the

National Funeral Directors Association

International Convention and Expo in Boston, where, luxury items aside, environmental consciousness seemed to be the key trend. "Green burials are very popular," says James Olson, funeral director at Lippert Olsen Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis., and a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.

There were myriad eco-friendly caskets made from materials such as wicker, bamboo and Papier-mache. Textile company

Hainsworth

unveiled a line of biodegradable caskets made of virgin Swaledale wool. Hainsworth also makes the fabric for the coats worn by the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace, which explains why there was an incongruous Beefeater mannequin standing among the caskets at the company's trade-show exhibit.

The greenest of the green in funeral trends is the conservation cemetery, of which there are 13 in the U.S., according to Olson. At

Ramsey Creek Preserve

in South Carolina, for example, vaults are forbidden and caskets are optional; the bereaved can choose simply to wrap the deceased in a cloth or quilt. Grave markers are optional as well: The staff keeps track of who's buried where via a geographical database.

"Basically, they give you a GPS if you ever want to visit," Olson says.

That's not to say traditional caskets are passe. Hillenbrand reported net revenue of $158.7 million in the third quarter, a 3.8% decline from a year earlier, but hardly a precipitous drop. Meanwhile,

Wal-Mart

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this week began selling caskets and cremation urns on its Web site. Pricing starts at $895 for the "Lady de Guadelupe," a casket made of 18-gauge steel, and $34.82 for the "Mother of Pearl Keepsake Urn." Such prices may undercut the prices of traditional casket companies, but aren't likely to pose any threat to the Promethean Bronze.

"Classics always last," Holzman says. "The best is the best."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.