A novelty giveaway at a 2001 national convention in Springfield spawned nationwide sales of the unique confection.
The Museum of Funeral Customs opened in Springfield in April 2001, and the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, which was instrumental in the development of the facility, had its state convention there in June.
The convention, the need for a little hype for the founding group and museum director Jon Austin's search for someone who could make the nifty coffin candy he had seen years ago all came together at once.
Austin contacted Doug Anderson, co-owner and vice president of Pease's Candy Shop, about the idea. Both said they initially thought they would need a custom mold.
"That was going to be really expensive, but we found a company that made a mold plaque of what we needed, and then we agreed to produce them only for the funeral customs museum," Anderson said.
It worked perfectly that the chocolate coffins, which feature a removable cover with a wrapped body inside, would be ready for the national convention that was part of the museum's official grand opening.
"We wanted something intriguing and a little quirky to give away, so we had 400 or so of the chocolate coffins made," Austin said. "They were gone almost immediately, and we still had a day and a half of the convention. We were conscious about giving them away, too - it wasn't like they were sitting out for people to grab handfuls. We had to scramble to get 200 more made."
Austin said he told conventiongoers the novelty was only offered for them, and they thought it would be great to offer the chocolates in the gift shop. The chocolate coffins were a hit, and since they were initially offered, the chocolate selection has expanded to tasty chocolate tombstones as well as coffins in milk and dark chocolate.
Anderson said Pease's will only sell the coffins to the museum. They are not available on Pease's Web site or at the stores.
Exclusive sales of an item are an arrangement that Pease's will make if that's what a customer wants.
There are four coffins on a mold and Pease's has 100 molds so they can be made in batches of 400 at a time.
Austin said the museum has shipped orders of the chocolates from coast to coast.
An editor of a trade magazine for the funeral industry purchased a bunch to put on her Christmas tree, Austin said. "She gave them to people to take home after her Christmas party."
The three largest orders have gone to, of all things, brides.
"They don't know each other, but it happened to be that each of them were giving party favors to wedding guests that celebrated the occupations of the bride and groom. For example, the husband was in banking so the guests got a gold-wrapped chocolate coin and the bride was involved in the funeral industry and the guest also got a chocolate coffin."
The coffins are packaged in a plastic sleeve tied with a ribbon. The brides, Austin said, requested the ribbon colors be coordinated with their wedding colors. "One bride was so concerned about getting them to her wedding, it was in the Quad Cities or Rockford," recounted Austin, "that she had one of the members of the wedding party drive to Springfield and pick them up."
When Anderson got a call from a funeral director in Atlanta about selling the coffins, he said they were exclusive to the Springfield museum, but he also learned there were molds for chocolate tombstones. In addition to the coffins, the museum now offers tasty tombstone treats. The coffins are 21/2 inches by 31/2 inches and about 3/8 of an inch thick and cost $2 each. The tombstones, which are a little smaller, sell for $1.50 each.
Austin said orders pick up around Halloween and that there is an increase in orders every time there is publicity. The coffins also are pretty popular for funeral home owners to take to classes when speaking at a career day.
Coffin sales since 2001 have been as high as 2,500 in one year but average around 1,700. The museum sold 1,668 milk chocolate coffins last year and about 500 dark chocolate coffins, according to Anderson.
Neither Austin nor Anderson sees anything creepy or morbid about the confection.
"It's a novelty item," Anderson explains. "We kept calling them caskets and Jon kept correcting us, and now we all just call them coffins."
Story published Friday, November 7, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 6 )