Funeral homes expand to malls

Associated PressFebruary 3, 2014 

— 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?

“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,’ ” said Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

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 in a mall in a Los Angeles suburb.

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 walk up to you and hawk discount calling plans or free yogurt samples, Forest Lawn’s operators are more discreet.

At a mall in Glendale, operators smiled and handed out brochures as people stopped to examine cremation urns that ranged from subdued (a leaf design) to quirky (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.”

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.

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?

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