In a perfect world, everyone would be prepared for death. You'd have the funeral arrangements made in advance, the headstone selected and paid for, and the coffin purchased and stored, waiting for the right moment of use. In the real world, even when people have been in declining health for months or years, death still comes as a moment for which the survivors are usually ill prepared. A lot of life's big decisions you can take your time on; I spent a couple of months on my last search for a house, and the last time I bought a car I made my choice after several weeks of research, reading reviews and visiting lots to look at models. But, when someone dies, the family is is often forced to make a lot of financial decisions in a span of days, and sometimes even hours.
You'd be an idiot to buy a car without at least looking at two or three competitors, but it seems unrealistic and perhaps a bit crass to "shop" for a funeral home, going to two or three and getting quotes while the deceased is left in limbo. However, having twice been closely involved with planning a funeral, there is definitely one area of the burial that you can have a lot of control and choice over: the casket. It may seem a bit shallow to worry about cost when you are getting ready to bury your loved ones. But, unless you are financially well off, the funeral often comes just as you are hit with eye-popping bills for medical care, not to mention lord knows how many financial loose ends that are left at the end of a person's life. If you can save significant sums of money and get exactly the same quality product, I don't think anyone should think ill of you.
My father's funeral was the second time I've purchased a casket online. Both times, I've been very pleased with the price and the product. This time, I looked online before I went to the funeral home, with my siblings and my mother at the laptop looking at different designs and options. One nice thing about the Internet is that you have plenty of choice. I was leaning toward a steel casket, but my mother thought a wooden one was more suited to Dad's personality, and we soon narrowed it down to a solid cedar casket in a natural wood grain finish. The casket, with express shipping, would cost us $1500. Then we went to the funeral parlor. They showed us their caskets, and the least expensive wooden casket they had started at $4000, and the one most similar to the one we liked online was $6000. Needless to say, we decided to go with the online option.
The funeral director did his best to dissuade us, but, legally, at least in North Carolina, you are free to purchase a casket from whoever you wish and they have to use it. We ordered from bestpricecaskets.com. I made the order on a Saturday night, and the casket was at the funeral home by 9am on Monday morning. The customer service department was excellent; I called back Sunday for tracking information and they had the information in seconds. The following morning, when the driver left the airport to deliver the casket, he called me on my cell phone so I could meet him at the funeral parlor to inspect it on arrival.
I was more than a little paranoid Sunday. I was worried because I was buying something online without actually having seen anything but a small photo. I worried it might arrive scuffed or damaged, or show shoddy workmanship that you wouldn't be able to spot in an online image. Instead, the coffin was lovely. The attention to detail was exceptional, and, as advertised, it was solid cedar. It had a wonderful cedar odor, and polished finish that practically glowed. All during the visitation people commented on how nice the casket was. This matched my experience with purchasing Laura's casket online: a bit of anxiety while it was in transit, but an excellent product once delivered.
I'm writing this in hopes of soothing the nerves of anyone out there who has had a loved one pass away and is thinking of buying a casket online, but is worried it might not work out. Several of the casket websites have personal testimonials, but, of course, you assume they are only going to post their positive comments and not their negative ones. I'm an objective third party who will testify that, in my two times as a casket shopper, I've gotten a good product for a fraction of the price the funeral parlors were going to charge. The only downside has been the completely self-inflicted anxiety in the hours between making the purchase and seeing the product. I can see how some people might buy a coffin at a funeral parlor just because they can actually see it, touch the bedding, etc., and skip the worry that the little photo you saw online won't match the product that arrives at the funeral home. Still, paying $2500 to $4000 extra to avoid that anxiety is a pretty steep price. Hopefully this will be a useful data point in making your decision.