Funeral and casket outlets are heading to the mall

By John Rogers

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 1:05 p.m. MST

In this Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, shows a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball sports cremation urn displayed at the Forest Lawn stand at the Glendale Galleria mall in Glendale, Calif. Forest Lawn, famous as the final resting place for everyone from Al Jolson to Michael Jackson, has begun staffing outlets at shopping malls, reasoning that planning for death, either for a loved one or yourself, might not be quite as intimidating for some people if it takes place in a lively, happy place like a mall rather than the more somber confines of a cremation home.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

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?

"Funeral 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 Association.

"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 discreet.

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 to them.

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 baseball team.

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.

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