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As the Coronavirus Death Toll Mounts, the eBay Urn Business Is Booming

It's the convergence of a few awful truths — chief among them that the pandemic's economic crisis has made it cost prohibitive for families to bury their next of kin

In her small garage in London, crushed beneath the weight of two old bicycles and a lawn mower, was a box that 33-year-old Sana Kashif had labeled “junk.” It was filled with things like plastic jewelry, knock-off children’s toys and poorly made office stationery — stuff that wholesale suppliers to her family’s convenience store would offload for free. Kashif would then try to flip these items on eBay or Facebook Marketplace for a small profit. The consistent sellers were usually old computer parts, playing cards and everyday essentials like napkins. But in the past couple of weeks, she’s noticed a surge of interest in another product that’s been sitting in those dusty “junk” boxes since 2018 — urns.

Kashif doesn’t remember when she uploaded the urns to her eBay account. In fact, she’d forgotten all about them until she received a message from a buyer asking if she had a few more. “They told me they were living with several elderly relatives and because one had contracted coronavirus, it was expected the rest of them would get it, too,” she explains. This wasn’t the only bidder either. A few months ago, she couldn’t get rid of them for five bucks each. Now, they were selling for six times that.

Meanwhile, more established sellers like the North Carolina-based Trupoint Memorials, who have sold urns and death memorabilia since the early 2000s, tell me that not only have their weekly sales doubled, but some of their more affordable urns (again, in the $20 to $50 price range) have nearly sold out. 

Overall, since the beginning of global lockdown, urns have been among the most popular products on eBay’s “Everything Else” category, the place where flippers like Kashif usually try to sell products that aren’t hypebeast fashion, electronics or (these days) hand sanitizer

Of course, this is just another depressing reality of the pandemic. Or better put, it’s the merger of a few different depressing realities — e.g., people are dying at an increased rate, and they’re also as financially stretched thin as they’ve ever been, often making the costs of burying a loved one unaffordable. To this end, on GoFundMe, there are dozens of petitions asking for public donations to front the costs of burial. 

Without a doubt, cremation is cheaper. Per a recent report from Sunlife, an organization that researches the costs of death in the U.K., a normal burial can cost more than $10,000, while cremation, depending on the type of service one may have, can be less than $1,500. 

Moreover, Ian Atkinson, the marketing director at SunLife, explains that interest in cremation is also probably spiking due to the logistics of attending a funeral under quaratine. “Some people feel it’s better at the moment to have no one attend and instead hold a wake or celebration of life at a later date so the deceased can have a proper send off with everyone who wants to pay their respects being able to attend,” he says.

Not to mention, a growing number of hospitals and funeral homes are physically running out of space to hold bodies and need to figure out a way to quickly dispose of them. “There are some that we’ve been trying to get buried since the lockdown began,” says Tracy Butler, who works at a funeral home in South London and helps families conduct funerals. “It’s not just about burying someone. We have to take into account how close the cemetery is for the family, how much space they have and how much staff cemeteries have to assist with the burial procedure.” She adds that, like many other essential workers, there are hundreds of undertakers in the U.K. without adequate PPE like face masks and gloves.

Kashif has a few of her urns left, but she’s guessing they’ll all be gone by next week. Not that it’s exactly made her happy to sell out. Or as she tells me, “You really realize how many people have died when you’re speaking to all these people who can’t bury their relatives.”