ANALYSIS: Corporate Case Study - Forever Enterprises infuses newlife into funeral industry

Burying conservative traditions in the funeral industry is a PR challenge, but the popularity of HBO's Six Feet Under helps. Carolyn Myles reports.

Burying conservative traditions in the funeral industry is a PR challenge, but the popularity of HBO's Six Feet Under helps. Carolyn Myles reports.

Forever Enterprises is breaking new ground when it comes to the way Americans view death and funerals.

The Los Angeles-based parent company calls itself a "death care

firm and owns several cemeteries in California, Missouri, and Texas. At its marquis property, Hollywood Forever, actors such as Tyrone Power, Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, and Calvin Klein model Harold Pruit II are buried, and George Harrison was cremated.

The 400-employee firm buys and renovates underachieving cemeteries, and is introducing technology to an industry slow to adopt new marketing techniques.

With plans to announce four more facilities within two weeks, Forever Enterprises claims to be the fastest growing firm in the field. It also operates a Homicide Victims Memorial, considered the nation's first interactive memorial dedicated solely to murder victims. The theater displays biographies of victims, effectively digital scrapbooks of their lives.

Changing how the living view death

The goal of the firm is to "take the creepiness out of the death industry and focus from the dead to the living,

explains Joe Sehee, director of communications. By removing the macabre from dying, Forever wants to help people stay connected with their family and friends.

Their mission is to "focus on high-consumer expectations.

Not an easy task since many of the people "checking in

have "checked out." Considering the critical acclaim that HBO's Six Feet Under has achieved, perhaps it is serendipitous that Forever Hollywood is using what might be considered unusual PR tactics to change the way people feel about death. In fact, Forever Enterprises often acts as a consultant to the show.

"The popularity of Six Feet Under has made it easier to discuss dying and memorialization in the media,

Sehee says. Forever wants people to be more comfortable with death and, by using PR strategies, connect with the living with the hope of changing attitudes about dying.

Let's face it: when was the last time you went to a jazz concert in a cemetery? Or went to see old movies surrounded by gravestones? As Jazz Times noted in an article last year, "(Artists) will perform for 63,500 people: 3,500 living and 60,000 dearly departed.

Forever even had one rap concert when hip-hopper DJRap One died. Picnics are encouraged at the cemetery.

Unlike their celluloid counterparts, the Cassity brothers have turned their funeral business into a $500 million enterprise, selling a wide range of memorialization services and products. If family members can't make your funeral, they can watch the service on the internet. Your estate will pay $200 an hour. However, if you choose to be buried at one of Forever's cemeteries, a three-minute musical tribute with 20 photographs is included.

Just think: you could have your own music video.

About 80% of families choose to screen the tribute at the memorial service.

For $395, one can buy a single chapter that includes 10 pictures with narration, a three-minute interview, and the incorporation of a one-minute home video. There are even gift shops that sell flowers, as well as souvenir guidebooks, coffee mugs, and t-shirts.

Sehee says the basic price for their services, including casket, is $988.

He notes the average price of a funeral in the US is around $5000. Forever, he said, is sacrificing short-term high profits, which he claims average 300%, for long-term relationships with customers. "We know that families are not going to want us to manage their archives if we gouge them initially,

he adds.

Forever has more than 10,000 multimedia biographies that include family trees, oral histories, and photographs, and can be viewed during funeral services and at interactive theaters at the cemeteries. Because so many of them are good stories, says Sehee, the firm is putting together a documentary about many of them.

Forever has attracted some serious media interest, from The New York Times, National Public Radio, Time, and PBS. Tyler Cassity, president, admits the industry is skittish about Forever's aggressive promotion and somewhat unusual services. But he was presented with the 2000 Media Award from the California Funeral Directors Association for articles on positive stories about the industry.

Solo PR undertaking

Sehee is a part-time one-man show when it comes to PR. There was some thought of hiring a PR firm last year, but Sehee was doing so well with media relations, they decided not to use outside counsel. Considering the PR successes, Forever's annual PR budget may come as a surprise: $36,000, which includes Sehee's two-days a week retainer. He handles all media and investor relations, crisis and brand management, as well as special events and public affairs. He receives additional compensation for new business development and supplements his income with writing projects.

Sehee says the company is planning on hiring an advertising firm some time this year.

Coming up in October is a Woody Herman concert (postponed last year due to September 11) which is being filmed for broadcast on PBS and select jazz radio stations nationwide. Forever is also putting together a TV pilot to highlight some of the more interesting and recent biographies.

With so much sound and video, Sehee says the company is also hoping to start a broadcast production division this year.

One might think that Sehee must be a grave young man to take on such a sensitive job. But he has a background of theater and religion. He almost became a lawyer, but he eschewed it to be a lay minister at the University of San Francisco. He created "Joey Cheezhee, American's Favorite Rollerblading Lounge Singer and the Velveeta Underground.

He had to drop the latter moniker after he received a "cease and desist" letter from Kraft. It was in this role that he honed his media relations skills by getting articles placed about his act in national news outlets. But, all good things had to end, so he held a funeral - a preview of his current career - for Joey Cheezhee.

Whether other funeral companies follow Forever down the marketing path remains to be seen. But, as more families buy websites to announce babies, graduation, and other significant milestones in their lives, why not mark the celebration of lives lived? As Sehee points out, sooner or later whether they like it or not, people will have to deal with death.

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