Funeral And Casket Outlets Are Heading To The Mall

LOS ANGELES -- We eat there, buy ourclothes there and some people suspect teenagers may actually live there. Soperhaps it was just a matter of time until funeralhomes began moving into the local shopping mall.

Over the past two years, Forest Lawnhas 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 thedecade when a company called Til We Meet Again began opening casket storesaround the country.

"We try to reach our audiencewhere they are at and the mall is agreat way to do that," said Ben Sussman, spokesman for Forest Lawn, whosecemeteries count among their permanent residents such notables as Walt Disney,Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson.

"And it's also, perhaps, a way toreach people who might be a little leery about coming directly into one of ourparks," Sussman said.

As to why folks would be leery aboutthat, industry officials acknowledge the answer is obvious: Who really wants toenter a funeral home even one daybefore they have to?

"Funeralplanning is something everybody knows they must do, but at the same time it'ssomething nobody wants to do," said Robert Fells, executive director ofthe International Cemetery, Cremation and FuneralAssociation.

"Nobody gets up on a Saturdaymorning and says, 'Gee, it's a nice day. I wonder if I can go out and getmyself 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 isthat 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 outletsin malls in Arizona, Louisiana,Kansas, Indiana and Texas.

So if they do happen to see a placepeddling coffins or urns while they're pricing T-shirts and hoodies, Smithsaid, 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 likecalendars or ties) in a mall in theLos Angeles suburb of Eagle Rock.

When no one was creeped out, theprogram expanded to about a half-dozen malls.Now Forest Lawn periodically shuffles them from one mallto 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 hawkdiscount calling plans or free yogurt samples, Forest Lawn's operators are morediscreet.

At the entrance to a Macy's departmentin the LA suburb of Arcadia last year, operators were quick to smile and handout brochures when approached. But they kept their distance until people cameto them.

It was the same at a mall in Glendale last week, where peoplestopped to examine cremation urns ranging from one with a subdued design ofleaves to another that brightly featured the logo for the Los Angeles Dodgersbaseball team.

Also on display was a recruitingposter for potential future Forest Lawn employees, complete with a picture ofthe great Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who urged them to consider"joining a winning team."

Still, not everyone is thrilled withthe idea. "You're in a shopping malland you're walking along and there's a funeralplace?" retired high-school teacher Stan Slome said incredulously."That sounds too deadly."

After thinking it over, however, heacknowledged it's something that could catch on.

At age 86, Slome said, he gets hisshare of mail from funeral operatorsinviting him to seminars at local restaurants, where he can have a meal on themwhile he hears a pitch on why he should use their services when he exits thismortal coil.

He doesn't care for that either, hesaid, but he figures somebody is attending those seminars.

If the malleffort catches on, said Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association, credit the aging Baby Boomgeneration at least in part. Historically, people have not wanted to talk, oreven think, about their demise.

But Baby Boomers, the oldest of whomare pushing 70, are different. Many are beginning to press for so-called green funerals that don't require the use of coffinsor burial vaults, Koth said. Others want custom-made coffins or urns that saysomething about who they were.

That often means something thatrepresents a favorite car or sports team, said Smith of Til We Meet Again. Hepointed out he even got a request once for a coffin built to resemble aportable toilet - from a guy whose company made portable toilets.

With that mindset, could going to the mall and planning the whole deal just stepsaway from the Merry-Go-Round really be that unusual?


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