As the world's biggest and most profitable retailer, Walmart has achieved staggering success in its efforts to put itself at the centre of American life. Now it's also trying to become part of the American way of death. The company, which owns the British supermarket chain Asda, has decided to get into the funeral business, and is now selling a range of coffins and urns at prices that dramatically undercut traditional undertakers.
Fourteen caskets, from the $895 (£560) "Dad Remembered" steel casket, to the exclusive "Sienna Bronze" model, which goes for $2,899 (£1,811), are available on Walmart's website. None are yet being stocked in stores, so customers must wait 48 hours for delivery. The range includes a special coffin designed for recently deceased servicemen, or military veterans. It's called "American Patriot," it is made from 18-gauge steel, and has the national flag embroidered on its lining.
"The American spirit glows in the embroidered front panel Stars and Stripes," reads the carefully written sales patter. "Stately and dignified, the American Patriot is made right here in the USA."
With the nation preparing for Halloween, news of Walmart's foray into the death industry could not have emerged at a more inappropriate time. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter apparently stumbled on the coffins while casually browsing the internet.
To avoid negative headlines, the firm had neglected to inform either shareholders or customers of its new range, which are categorised as "household products". "We are simply conducting a limited beta test [a low-profile, no-fanfare launch] to understand customer response," said a spokesman.
The coffins are all manufactured by an Illinois company called Star Legacy Funeral Network, whose chief executive Rick Obadiah revealed that no less than 200 of their products, including pet urns and "memorial jewellery", will eventually be sold by Walmart.
People who buy them will not necessarily be intending to carry out DIY funerals. Under US law, all funeral homes are required to allow clients to use coffins that are sold or made by a third party, rather than being forced to by the funeral directors' own models.
In keeping with its business model of undercutting the competition, Walmart is offering 12-month finance deals on the range, as well as an "enjoy no payment for six months" offer.
It also has a returns policy, and invites online customers to "be the first to review this product". But unlike other Walmart products available on line, customers will not be able to "try before they buy".