Advertising a Cemetery

Date Published: 
September, 1929
Original Author: 
Harry A. Earnshaw
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Convention

About twelve or thirteen years ago a young man stood on a hilltop overlooking a small country cemetery of some fifty-five acres. This property had just been placed in his charge. He saw no buildings on the property. There was only a patch of lawn, with a few straggling headstones. Beyond the scant dozen acres of developed ground the hillside rose sere and brown. It was not exactly a scene of surpassing loveliness. The problem of making a notable property out of it was a serious one. It was apparent that its future commercially would not rise above its artistic and esthetic plane.

The young man who surveyed the scene, however, possessed one of those minds to which visions come. He was, as a matter of fact, a rare combination: In the highest sense an idealist, a dreamer of dreams; and at the same time, a practical, trained engineer, who could plan definitely how to make a worthy dream come true. On this historic occasion a dream did come—a vision. He saw, in one swift instant of revelation, what this tiny "God's Acre" might be made into. So real was this vision, so definitely did the philosophy by which it might be realized present itself to this practical man that that very day he put down in writing for his own private guidance, what you might call a Creed. It was a statement of his own beliefs and principles and theories.
And I think no better basis could be laid for the brief discussion which I shall attempt, than to read you this Builder's Creed—the self-instituted guide which was set up twelve years ago for Forest Lawn Memorial Park by Mr. Hubert Eaton: (which has been quoted in Mr. Eaton's address)

"This is the Builder's Dream; this is the Builder's Creed."

This was the vision. Now for the realization. It has only been achieved in part. Naturally, like the horizon, such a sweeping esthetic and spiritual concept must inevitably lift and carry the pilgrim on to bigger and better things beyond. But Forest Lawn Memorial-Park is today a property of about 200 acres. It is bounded on three sides by the everlasting hills, and protected equally from encroachment on the other by the natural situation and location.

Its employees number about 500. Its interments exceed in number those of any similar institution in the West. Its "Little Church of the Flowers," inspired by the historic church at Stoke Poges, England, to which immortality was given by the poet Gray, is the scene of hundreds of weddings each year. The Administration Building houses the executive offices, the well-patronized Flower Shop, a Museum of Antiquities. Its exterior architecture and interior decoration and arrangement are all authentically inspired by the mansion house of an English nobleman of the Sixteenth Century. Just being completed is a second church, "The Wee kirk o' the Heather," patterned after that famous little chapel in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, where Annie Laurie worshipped. The Mausoleum-Columbarium is a stately building of steel and concrete, built against the rock of the hillside in terraces, and upon the roof is now being placed a magnificent Court of Honor at one end of which will be placed a stained glass reproduction of Leonardo's "Last Supper." Surmounting Mount Forest Lawn a rugged Tower disguises its utilitarian purpose (the storage of water) by its allegorical conception and design and forms a landmark famous for miles around the property.

This is a quick sketch of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park as it has evolved since the Builder had his vision, a complete sketch except that I neglected to mention the scores of notable pieces of sculpture placed with great effectiveness about the grounds, or housed in the various buildings.
Now you might properly ask the question: Did advertising build all this? To answer it accurately would be as difficult as to answer the age old question: In the original creation, did the Egg or the Chicken come first? The fact is, the support of the public in the way of sales made possible the advertising, and the advertising helped to build the sales.
To most people there is something incongruous at first in the idea of a cemetery advertising far business. It is a common thing for us to be favored with "wise-cracks" and rather labored attempts at humor, when the subject comes up in ordinary conversation with the lay man. But we think we have discovered that Mr. Average Man’s heavy efforts at humor in connection with such a subject are what the psychologists call a "defense mechanism." Most people instinctively shrink from the thought or discussion of death. It seems like opening the door to morbid reflections. But it is also a fact that if death is faced courageously, accepted as a natural part of life, it begins to lose its power to terrify. Forest Lawn Memorial-Park holds boldly to the theory that a rational discussion of death and the problems which death creates for those left behind, rather than hastening one's end, operates in quite the opposite manner. We ask people to accept the unalterable fact of death, and to make wise, rational preparation for it, as they would for any other event of which they had certain foreknowledge.
Approaching the problem of selling a cemetery from this standpoint, the sales resistance is much more theoretical than real. It shrinks to a practical minimum indeed, when coupled with the utilitarian features of a cemetery property, you are fortunate enough to have esthetic, civic and artistic considerations on such a prodigal scale as happens to be the case with Forest Lawn.
Now of course what Forest Lawn is really doing is to create what is virtually a great composite memorial perpetuating not simply the memory of one individual but of all the brave souls who have gone on before us, from this community. Every owner of Forest Lawn property thus becomes a partner in this great enterprise. The fact that it has a commercial aspect in no way lessens its civic, esthetic and spiritual value to the community.
In fact, its commercial foundation is one of its outstanding virtues, because out of its sales is set up a perpetual fund for care and maintenance, which is a guarantee for all time to come that this area dedicated to a great purpose, shall forever remain dedicated to it, shall forever grow in grandeur and beauty, shall forever continue to evolve into a monument more and more fitting and adequate.

So this brings us to the practical problem of continuously making sales. These sales automatically group themselves, as you know, into the two classes: those made by natural exigency or "at need" and those made in advance or "before need".
Both classes of purchases are influenced tremendously by the good will or prestige of the institution. The sales force which is maintained devotes its efforts to the making of "before need" sales. Selections of this character naturally represent a greater volume in money than an equal number of "at need" sales.

I think I have sketched sufficiently the background of Forest Lawn to show you where advertising comes into the picture, to accomplish that which no other force could accomplish within the same time. May I remind you of an axiom very familiar to advertising men—that no business can succeed with advertising unless it would and could also succeed without it. I think that is generally true enough to set it down axiomatically. But what is implied in that axiom is this that advertising can be compared to the glassed houses of the florists, or the fertilizer and watering or the farmer, which renders success more certain and also encompasses it within reasonable time limits, as human lives and activities are measured. The "mouse trap" theory of Elbert Hubbard's, while it contains a considerable portion of truth, is yet dangerous in this modern day. Life is too short to wait for the world to beat a path to your door. If you have something worthy for the people, you must tell them if you want to sell them.

So it comes down to the question of telling. Who is going to do it? The Forest Lawn story—as I think I have sufficiently indicated—is no ordinary story. The average salesman will be able to do it but scant justice, even if the ordinary prospective buyer has the patience to listen or the intelligence to grasp quickly. Furthermore, if you have an important property, conducted on an ambitious a scale as Forest Lawn, you will not want to entrust its telling to the average sales force. If you have 50 people, you are bound to be creating at least fifty different versions of your story.

Forest Lawn boldly tells the public its story, in its own way. It uses for the purpose, practically every legitimate medium of advertising—radio, newspapers, billboards, theatre programs, direct advertising through the mail printed literature, and publicity.

Every character of Forest Lawn advertising goes through the same process of meticulous care in preparation: that is to say, no amount of time or pains is spared in the writing of copy, the preparation of art work, the arrangement of printing, so that precisely the right shade of meaning is conveyed, and so that the advertising shall always and everywhere be upon a very high literary, artistic and spiritual plane.

Radio has been found astonishingly effective in directing public attention upon the institution, and creating for it a most favorable association of ideas. A thirty-piece symphony orchestra and an ensemble of approximately sixteen singers of very high professional caliber are used one hour each week, together with a carefully written continuity. The programs are selected about two weeks in advance. Each program centers about one outstanding theme. The titles of some recent programs will give you an idea of this: Songs of the Sea—The Old Corner Book Shop—A Night in Havana—Russian Nights—A Night in the Theatres—"Chimes of Normandy"—Love Songs of the World—Evolution of the Dance—Wheels of the World—and Music of Devotion, which is the title of the Forest Lawn radio presentation to be given this Friday evening.

Practically all the music is rehearsed, and the entire program is approved by us before it is presented. The same hour and the same night each week are used, and since the advertising has now been running over the air for practically forty weeks, I think it is not too much to say that the Forest Lawn programs have become a recognized institution on the Pacific Coast. Emphasis is placed in the announcements on the cultural and esthetic features of Forest Lawn, the important works of art and notable buildings are repeatedly mentioned, and there is always an invitation to visit the Park as one of the best known places of interest in Southern California. Radio is one of the great new factors in advertising, but its technique is difficult and subtle, and offers the grandest opportunity of any medium open to the advertiser, for him to demonstrate how little he knows what the public wants. A certain well known national concern decided a few years ago to go on the air, and among their directors was a fine old gentleman who in his early youth had had it musical education. He volunteered—in fact, insisted—that he would take charge of the radio advertising. He searched the musical libraries of the new and old worlds for fine music which had never before been played. He announced that he was going to raise the standard of musical taste in America. After the company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars it was unanimously agreed to abandon the idea of education. The fact is, that radio is a new and curious combination of art and showmanship and advertising. It is not absolutely necessary to be crazy to handle radio advertising, but you will get along better if you are!

Before we used the radio we used the newspapers, and in them presented the Forest Lawn story week after week. Copy and art were pitched upon a high plane. This newspaper advertising was widely read and commented upon. But when we began using radio we changed the character of the newspaper ads somewhat: that is, we now use the newspapers to advertise the radio programs. However, with each advertisement, there is also a straight Forest Lawn advertising message.

I think perhaps this would be as good as place as any for me to remark that the newspapers are much more effective since we have used the radio and the radio undoubtedly has a larger and more impressible audience because we use the newspapers. And this holds true of all our advertising, just as it holds true of advertising in any other field. When you use two mediums instead of one, you more than double your returns, because you increase the effectiveness of each one.

We use painted billboards, illuminated. Here we have only the briefest telegraphic message. Just now we are beginning the first of a series of symbolic messages. The one on the boards now is just a beautiful painting of the sea, no land or other objects in sight except clouds. Our copy reads "Eternal—as the sea." Then at the bottom of the board, FOREST LAWN MEMORIAL PARK IN GLENDALE. The next board no doubt will be just a painting of infinity, that is, a point far out in space, with the stars and planets suggested and again the phrase "Eternal—as the heavens." These boards are symbolical, suggestive, and carry the thought so necessary to get over, that Forest Lawn is an institution which shall endure for all time to come. Of course, there is a psychological association also, for it directs the mind, very subtly and without even appearing to do so, to the unalterable fact of earthly change but Eternal persistence of the human soul.

Though this discussion is not intended to be metaphysical or theological, we are not ashamed to say that Forest Lawn believes in eternal life, and we don't hesitate to say so in our advertising. We try to take the morbidity out of death, and the institution we advertise does not parade grief and woe and disconsolation, but typify and symbolizes in every way that ingenuity can suggest, abundant, endless and joyous life.

Right along this line, may I say that my company is at present  preparing a beautiful book which will probably be called "This Continuing Life" and in it will be quoted the best thought in prose and poetry of the whole world, bearing on immortality. The purpose of this book will be to serve as a courtesy or good will present, to patrons, without charge whatsoever, but as a subtle and delicately expressed gesture of understanding and sympathy with the bereaved. Surely it is not preaching to say that the surest and in fact, the only solace, which we can give to those left behind, is some concrete expression of our own conviction that their separation from their loved ones is out temporary.

So fast are precious objects of art from the old world being added to the already large collection in Forest Lawn, that we find it necessary quite frequently to reissue the official souvenir of the Park, called "The Chimes." This is a beautifully illustrated and printed booklet, in size 9" x 12", showing the latest and most attractive views of the grounds, buildings and statuary. As time goes on, The Chimes is growing further and further away from a commercial booklet, and tends to become more artistic and more truly a souvenir. This book is sold for a nominal price at the grounds, or is sent by mail in response to newspaper and other advertising.

Regular mailings of letter campaigns are maintained. We have tried to cover the "before need" sales story by letter but just now we are using a very short letter, with which is enclosed a simply written booklet with the sales story.

We have another booklet, called prosaically, "The Truth. About Burial Customs and Costs," and our advertising is keyed for this booklet also, which is distributed gratis. It is a plain story of the': subject, as its title indicates.

Still another booklet, which is growing more and more important as time goes on, is the Official Guide Book. This is practically a cyclopedia of all the interesting features of Forest Lawn, describing in detail the grounds, buildings, statuary and other objects of special significance, interest, or historical association. This booklet, on thin Bible stock, is in great demand by visitors.

The use of theatre programs for cemetery advertising may seem incongruous, but our experience and observation is that this is a most valuable medium. It reaches a good class of people, it profits by the very fact that it is different from any other advertising in the program, and we know from actual tests made in the theatres, that it is read perhaps more thoroughly than even our newspaper insertions.

We are fairly generous patrons of some of the higher types of class publications, such as women's clubs magazines, musical publications, etc., going to special groups. When we do use these mediums, we exercise exactly the same care in preparation that we would if we were going into the Ladies Home Journal or Vanity Fair.

Then of course, we attempt to secure all the publicity to which we are entitled by virtue of the news value of the events which occur in which Forest Lawn figures. The acquisition of new statuary or buildings makes legitimate news. At Easter Time a sunrise service is held on Mount Forest Lawn attended last year by 40,000 to 50,000 people. The Little Church of the Flowers attracts many notable weddings, which are the basis of legitimate publicity.

I should not be surprised if some of you are mentally asking the question: which advertising, medium is most profitable. I have always tried to live up to the legend that an advertising man is omniscient, but in this case I will imperil my reputation, if any, by saying that I do not know. I think I am safe in saying that, taken all together, they are profitable. My recommendation to any cemetery is that if they are using practically all media, and the sum total of results is pretty satisfactory, leave well enough alone. It is entirely probable that some of those media are pulling only 50 percent, some 90 percent, some 100 percent, and maybe others 200 percent. If it was my money I wouldn't care. I have seen too many instances where it was attempted to get exactly 100 percent out of each and every cog in the wheel. Don't look for perfection in every piece of advertising, any more than you do in every individual in a given group. We ought to be happy if the general level of the group is pretty high, in a world which is still able only to approximate perfection in any line of effort.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
September 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1929