During the late 19 th century, southeastern Indiana came to specialize in an industry it still dominates. Its forests supplying the raw materials and a concentration of German immigrant artisans providing the craftsmanship, the area became known for furniture manufacture. As burial customs changed, furniture makers were increasingly asked to supply wooden caskets.
Having been founded in 1884, the Batesville Coffin Company was known for its ornate hand-carved coffins when it was acquired by John A. Hillenbrand in 1906. Owner of the American Furniture Company, and, in time, the Batesville Carving Company, Hillenbrand set up a plant in the small Franklin County town to house all three subsidiaries in 1921. These days, the Batesville Casket Company leads the industry with nearly fifty percent of the national market share. Hillenbrand Industries also comprises Hill-Rom, since 1929 a leading maker of hospital beds and other medical equipment.
Given the vagaries of funeral practices, the Batesville Casket Company has transitioned between wood and metal vaults over the years, and adapted to provide products for cremation, an increasingly popular alternative. The company employs about a thousand people in the city of 6,400; and since 2004 has operated a factory in Mexico. In 1994, federal law began allowing customers to purchase caskets directly from the retailer, instead of requiring a funeral director to serve as intermediary. Although Batesville Casket continues to do business exclusively with funeral homes, the Aurora Casket Company, operating on the Ohio River in nearby Dearborn County, derives at least a third of its orders directly from consumers. Founded in 1890 by John J. Backman, Aurora is the largest privately owned casket manufacturer in the U.S., and the country’s third largest producer.
Although no longer in existence, the American Casket Company also had its start in the region—having been founded in Shelbyville in 1909, it soon relocated to Indianapolis, where it manufactured all manner of pine boxes until 1984, when the property was bought by Indiana University.