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July 28, 2014

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Funeral and casket outlets are heading to the mall

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AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Shoppers walk past the Forest Lawn kiosk at the Glendale Galleria mall in Glendale, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.

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.

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 mortal coil.

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?

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