In arguably the most Arkansas spin possible on the creative culture of disruption, a new Little Rock start-up makes caskets shaped like fishing boats for die-hard outdoorsmen and women who want to sail into eternal glory on their most beloved earthly vessel.
Modeled after classic aluminum jon boats, Glory Boats (also the name of the start-up) are made from steel, will fit in standard burial vaults and are lined with a choice of three different camo patterns. Woodland camo is the most popular. Marsh grass camo is meant to appeal to duck hunters, and a hot-pink number is meant to appeal to the ladies (though, while a few women have opted to be buried in a Glory Boat, none so far have gone for the pink).
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At $2,800 per casket, Glory Boats fall about in the middle of the going rate for caskets in Arkansas.
The idea sprang from a lighthearted joke in the midst of a frighteningly close call for Glory Boats owner Joel Schmidt’s father in 2016. When John Schmidt, who is in his mid-70s and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, took a hard fall and ended up in the hospital with several broken ribs, Joel Schmidt feared his father might not make it. Schmidt realized he had to have a difficult conversation with his father that many people choose to avoid: What did he want for his funeral?
“He was very generous to give me all the details,” Schmidt said. “Just to lighten the mood a little I offered to him that maybe I could bury him in his fishing boat.” John Schmidt recovered and left the hospital, but the idea of the fishing boat casket stayed firmly planted in Joel Schmidt’s mind. After doing some research and discovering that no one was making fishing-boat caskets, Schmidt called a funeral director friend and said, “You’re going to laugh, but I’ve got an idea.”
The idea became Schmidt’s secret project for a year. “This is too weird,” Schmidt remembers thinking, and he wanted to make absolutely sure he wasn’t going overboard before he told anyone, even his wife. After thinking through all of the details, it started to look like this fish tale might be feasible after all.
Schmidt let his family in on the idea, and when they turned out surprised but supportive, he formed the Glory Boats company with his brother-in-law and son-in-law. His wife, Schmidt said, “took it way better than expected!”
Schmidt happened to know of a steel door company in Little Rock, National Custom Hollow Metal, that had the capability of manufacturing the parts. Schmidt’s brother-in-law had the skills to weld them together to make the final product. The idea behind the name Glory Boats, Schmidt said, is that “our entire life is a journey. And for most of us we’d like to think it’s headed to a glorious place. And that’s kind of the old synonym for the hereafter and the reward of faith. And I thought it’s just a good fit.”
Glory Boats is staying afloat after its first couple of years, but the business is still a small fish in the big funeral industry pond. “I had no idea what to expect,” Schmidt said. The company manufactured 12 boats to start, and it took a year to sell all of them. Five more caskets have been made and five are in the works.
Glory Boats is reeling in customers via outdoor and sporting expos, where the boats make for very popular photo-ops. “Some of the looks and expressions are really priceless,” Schmidt said. The Glory Boats website mentions how comfortable the caskets are, which turns out to be a surprisingly important concern for shoppers interested in housing a corpse. Five models are on display in funeral homes, and one Glory Boat is strategically placed in the Antiques & Uniques antique mall in Bryant. “I think I kind of freaked out the ladies at the front of the mall,” Schmidt said. But they allowed him to display a Glory Boat model in a booth and report that it is a lively conversation piece.
One might think Glory Boats would be an instant hit in outdoorsy Arkansas, as far as caskets go, anyway, so Schmidt was surprised that he sold more boats in surrounding states like Tennessee, Illinois and Louisiana before his first sale in Arkansas. “We have a lot of outdoor enthusiasts here,” Schmidt said. “We just need to get in front of as many people as possible.”
So far the eternal fishermen buyers have typically been in their mid-60s or younger. According to Schmidt’s experience, generations older than the baby boomers like the Glory Boats, but ultimately go for a traditional casket. Boomers and subsequent generations, Schmidt hypothesizes, are more interested in customization, even when it comes to their own funeral. (Buyers can further customize their Glory Boats with the registration number from their bass boats painted on the side.) “I think we’re going to see more and more of this kind of thing as we get further and further into the boomers, you know, going. We [baby boomers] are probably going to be the oldest generation looking to individualize and personalize this last great milestone of life.”
Preachers are another demographic that get excited about Glory Boats, albeit for different reasons. ” ‘We can’t wait to preach over this thing! It is rich with metaphor,’ ” Schmidt said he often hears from preachers. Schmidt is also quick to point out good-naturedly that arriving at the pearly gates in a fishing boat might get you in good with St. Peter, considering the saint’s former employment on Earth as a fisherman.
The bad news about these caskets, besides the fact that they are caskets, is that, no, they are not recommended for use as a water-borne funeral pyre, Viking-style. Schmidt frequently fields this question with good humor, but his message is clear: These are not boats. While Schmidt admitted that they could potentially float, the only body of water they are designed to ride is the River Styx. “People always say, ‘Can we do the Viking funeral with this?’ and I say, ‘Whatever your state law will allow is fine by us, but I’m sure Arkansas would probably frown on dead bodies drifting down the river half-charred.” Schmidt tragically abandoned an alternative name for the company, Valhalla Vessels, in order to not encourage people to illegally enact their Viking dreams.
While the company doesn’t have any plans to come out with seaworthy models, Schmidt hopes to hook more customers by producing a line of crematory urns. Plans are underway for a scaled down version of the fishing boat and also an urn in the shape of a saltwater fishing reel mounted to a rod. Another possible future product is a wooden, flammable version of the boat casket for those who want to have a traditional memorial service followed by cremation, so going down in a blaze of glory in your fishing boat isn’t 100 percent out of the question.
The Glory Boats website offers one other service besides caskets. After his experience with his dad, Schmidt realized how important it is to have the funeral conversation with loved ones before it’s too late. The Glory Boats website has a free guide to the conversation, which you can download and fill out so that friends and family won’t be in the dark when it comes to funeral planning while also in the midst of mourning.
While Schmidt is new to the funeral business and still maintains his job as a photographer, he has found it to be an interesting and rewarding experience. “The thing that’s really encouraging about it is the reports we get back from the families. They say, ‘You know, this was their passion, it brought a nice little ray of light to a dark moment to be able to acknowledge that in this way. Because that was so them.”
Schmidt’s father is still with us and in good health. But as an avid outdoorsman himself, when he saw the first prototype of the Glory Boat he said, “I want to change my funeral plans.”