LOS ANGELES -- We eat there, buy our
clothes there and some people suspect teenagers may actually live there. So
perhaps it was just a matter of time until funeral
homes began moving into the local shopping mall.
Over the past two years, Forest Lawn
has been quietly putting movable kiosks in several of the malls that dot Southern California's suburbs.
The move, by one of the funeral industry's best known operators,
expands on a marketing innovation that appears to have begun at the dawn of the
decade when a company called Til We Meet Again began opening casket stores
around the country.
"We try to reach our audience
where they are at and the mall is a
great way to do that," said Ben Sussman, spokesman for Forest Lawn, whose
cemeteries count among their permanent residents such notables as Walt Disney,
Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson.
"And it's also, perhaps, a way to
reach people who might be a little leery about coming directly into one of our
parks," Sussman said.
As to why folks would be leery about
that, industry officials acknowledge the answer is obvious: Who really wants to
enter a funeral home even one day
before they have to?
planning is something everybody knows they must do, but at the same time it's
something nobody wants to do," said Robert Fells, executive director of
the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral
"Nobody gets up on a Saturday
morning and says, 'Gee, it's a nice day. I wonder if I can go out and get
myself a burial plot,'" Fells said.
But if they're strolling past a funeral outlet at the mall, where they're surrounded by happy,
lively people and maybe clutching a bag of Mrs. Field's cookies, the thought is
that they'll feel differently.
"When they're going to the mall, people are not going out of need,"
said Nathan Smith, co-founder and CEO of Til We Meet Again, which has outlets
in malls in Arizona, Louisiana,
Kansas, Indiana and Texas.
So if they do happen to see a place
peddling coffins or urns while they're pricing T-shirts and hoodies, Smith
said, it will look far less intimidating.
Forest Lawn's effort began modestly,
with just one kiosk (one of those movable things that usually sell stuff like
calendars or ties) in a mall in the
Los Angeles suburb of Eagle Rock.
When no one was creeped out, the
program expanded to about a half-dozen malls.
Now Forest Lawn periodically shuffles them from one mall
to another to reach the largest audience.
Unlike the people at other such stations,
who can seem like carnival barkers as they walk right up to you and hawk
discount calling plans or free yogurt samples, Forest Lawn's operators are more
At the entrance to a Macy's department
in the LA suburb of Arcadia last year, operators were quick to smile and hand
out brochures when approached. But they kept their distance until people came
It was the same at a mall in Glendale last week, where people
stopped to examine cremation urns ranging from one with a subdued design of
leaves to another that brightly featured the logo for the Los Angeles Dodgers
Also on display was a recruiting
poster for potential future Forest Lawn employees, complete with a picture of
the great Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who urged them to consider
"joining a winning team."
Still, not everyone is thrilled with
the idea. "You're in a shopping mall
and you're walking along and there's a funeral
place?" retired high-school teacher Stan Slome said incredulously.
"That sounds too deadly."
After thinking it over, however, he
acknowledged it's something that could catch on.
At age 86, Slome said, he gets his
share of mail from funeral operators
inviting him to seminars at local restaurants, where he can have a meal on them
while he hears a pitch on why he should use their services when he exits this
He doesn't care for that either, he
said, but he figures somebody is attending those seminars.
If the mall
effort catches on, said Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association, credit the aging Baby Boom
generation at least in part. Historically, people have not wanted to talk, or
even think, about their demise.
But Baby Boomers, the oldest of whom
are pushing 70, are different. Many are beginning to press for so-called green funerals that don't require the use of coffins
or burial vaults, Koth said. Others want custom-made coffins or urns that say
something about who they were.
That often means something that
represents a favorite car or sports team, said Smith of Til We Meet Again. He
pointed out he even got a request once for a coffin built to resemble a
portable toilet - from a guy whose company made portable toilets.
With that mindset, could going to the mall and planning the whole deal just steps
away from the Merry-Go-Round really be that unusual?