Estate Sales: Just for Millionaires and Magnates? Not Anymore.

Date Published: 
July, 2004
Original Author: 
Lexann Pryd-Kakuk
Cold Spring Memorial Group
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, July 2004

Do you think of private family mausoleums primarily as architectural adornments gracing historical cemeteries or cemeteries dedicated to the rich and famous? Are they something your counselors don't even mention unless a family asks? You may be shortchanging your families—and your cemetery.

Perceiving them to be only for a highly exclusive audience, many cemeteries have avoided marketing private estates like they market community mausoleums or memorials. When people tell me that private estates are too risky to market because there is not enough of a critical mass to support their private estates marketing efforts, I ask them one question: "How can you assume that the private estates market doesn't justify an active marketing program when most families have never been informed or educated about private estates?"

I respond with the same question when people point out that the biggest trend in memorialization today is cremation and toward less formal and expensive forms of memorialization. That may be true, but cremation is one segment of the market. A substantial niche market for private estates remains largely untapped.

A large number of people in the private estates market, which generally encompasses households with incomes of $75,000 or more, are also seeking to memorialize their legacies and families through private estates, but most of them have not been aggressively marketed to.

Most Americans don't know what "private estate" means. They probably do know what a family or private mausoleum is, but they don't know that there are hundreds of different private estate designs available to suit the preferences of middle- to higher income families and high net worth families.

Understandably, many cemeteries are averse to spending the time and resources required to market private estates. After all, the most cost-effective private estate is significantly higher in price than an average bronze or granite memorial. Two-crypt pre-assembled mausoleums start from $20,000. A larger personalized private estate with classically designed columns, pediments, porticos and landscaped walkways with benches and statuary can cost more than $250,000.

Unlike community mausoleums, in which crypt and niche spaces often have been sold on a preneed basis by the time the mausoleums are completed, or bronze or monumental memorials that can be sold to families in one or two sittings, private estates require a much longer lead time to be appreciated and sold to families. Even so, this market is recording robust growth compared to other memorialization sectors.

Cemeteries that have strategically incorporated private estates into their overall marketing efforts have prospered. Each of the following key success factors are employed by the following cemeteries, which stand out as examples of cemeteries successfully marketing private estates.

Keys to Marketing Private Estates
Know your turf. When the Lohman family acquired Daytona Memorial Park & Funeral Home in Daytona, Florida, Lowell Lohman did not expect that one of the key features of the park would be a special private estates garden. Many people, in fact, doubted the memorial park would be anything like it is today. The state forced out the previous owners of the property, which was plagued by vandalism, dilapidated buildings, weed-infested lawns and garbage issues.
Daytona Memorial Park now is a model cemetery with manicured lawns, freshly paved roads and beautiful fountains. But what makes the memorial park stand out is that it is the only one in the county with a private estates garden.

Volusia County has a population of half a million people, half of whom are over 45 years old, including many retirees. Though the county has a 48 percent cremation rate, Lohman knew that there would be a natural demand for private estates because many people interested in private estates memorialization "had nowhere to go to except to the largest cemeteries that did not distinguish private estates in gardens."

Publicize your commitment. Lohman had a spot in mind for a beautiful private estate garden. A heavily wooded 5-acre area was cleared, a lake basin carved and filled with water, and 14 lots separated by hedges and all facing the lake were created. The Lohmans poured an estimated $150,000 into developing Legacy Lake, which took months of planning and half a year of construction to complete.

There was no doubt that the development of the whole property enhanced the community, and the Lohmans took care to publicize their efforts. They relayed details to the media and to members of the community. This resulted in word-of-mouth publicity and news coverage about the property. The buzz encouraged more people to visit Daytona Memorial Park, including Legacy Lake.

Market distinction and exclusivity.  Legacy Lake was designed as an exclusive sanctuary for private reflection, promoting serenity and peace of mind. "We wanted to create something unique, a landscaped 'Garden of Eden' that would be appreciated by people seeking a specialized form of memorialization," said Lohman.

Private estate gardens and market-segmented memorialization sections are marketed in the same manner as real estate in upper-end neighborhoods. Mike Shipley, sales manager of Arlington Memorial Park in Atlanta, Georgia, says exclusive areas for private estates at Arlington were developed according to tour income categories: silver, gold, platinum and diamond. Just as high-end homes are positioned next to lakes, the diamond area features private estates on a lake or a large pond; platinum is located near water; and gold and silver are farther away from the water.

"A person seeking a higher-end private estate will not feel comfortable if the plot will be located in an indistinct area located next to memorials or markers," said Shipley. Since land and private estates are segmented and marketed in different categories, they are also sold separately.

Market to all levels. While segmenting your market and catering to different groups' needs are paramount in any marketing effort, all people visiting your cemetery should be exposed to private estates. "Don't think private estates are only for the obviously well-to-do," Shipley said, "because you don't know if they're rich or not and people don't know what their needs are. We never assume anything about a family or a person, especially in regard to their financial, religious or ethnic backgrounds. We treat everybody the same."

Shipley and his counselors are trained to introduce all aspects of memorialization, including private estates. They start at the top and talk to families about private estates, followed by community mausoleums and traditional and non-traditional burial and interment options. "We start with higher value and stop at the value that meets the individual's needs," Shipley said.

Rick Halkuff, regional sales manager for the Alderwoods Group and responsible for the Jewish market in southern Florida, practices the same top-down sales/marketing approach. "It's very important that the counselor isn't afraid to present something that may cost more than a $1 million to a family,” he said "We work to let people naturally gravitate to private estates or other options where their comfort level is the highest."

By taking the time to educate families in this manner, instead of trying to “sell” them, Shipley said, the cemetery has found that some families opt for a private estate after having memorialized a loved one with a traditional memorial or in a community mausoleum. "One family member did not like the community mausoleum that her husband was in and ended up purchasing a two-crypt private estate."

Make it clear cremation is embraced. Although most private estates are identified with traditional above-ground entombment, the growing preference for cremation has necessitated marketing cremation private estates. Instead of containing crypts, cremation estates are columbariums containing cremation niches.

Except for exposed units without vestibules, columbarium private estates appear to be no different than private estates. They may have walk-in vestibules or can be larger, classically designed structures.

Another favored approach is to flank the front walkways of non-cremation private estates with benches with cremation cores so that members opting for cremation may be interred in the benches next to family members entombed in private estates.

Promote private estates as the family's final gathering place. Private estates are also marketed as the final gathering place of families. Few Americans live in communities where they are born. Most families are dispersed across the country. Rarely are they buried in a family plot and memorialized in the same fashion or in the same cemetery.

A family estate can double as a family plot, bringing family members who have lived apart for most of their adult lives finally together; Maximizing use of space, private estates can be built with as many as 24 crypts and 100 niches, an environmentally attractive factor.

Give Tours. One of the most effective marketing tools for private estates is the cemetery tour. Over 700 burials occur at Shipley's Arlington Memorial Park. Each burial is an opportunity for counselors to show family members around the whole property.

''Tours have to be conducted continuously," Shipley said. "Counselors have to be on their toes to ensure that all families are taken care of, and no person must be left unattended or taken for granted."

Shipley recalled that he was able to sell a family an eight-burial gated estate after one tour. "My role really was that of a guide pointing out various features of private estates, including designs, colors and needs for the family."

Showcase private estates. Featuring a sample private estate is another way to call attention to them when families are touring your cemetery. The Lohmans have a vestibule mausoleum made of sunset red granite with sandblasted columns and two benches flanking its front walkway. Instead of a generic family name, the Lohmans had the words, "Your Name" carved on the pediment to reinforce the marketing message for visiting families passing by.

Train and prepare counselors. The counselor must be able to identify the most important needs of a family in relation to private estates. This requires training and preparation.

Bruce McGowen, sales manager for Catholic Cemeteries of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, says his counselors are trained to ask families questions and to listen to the answers. What size are their families? Where are their families? What are their professions? And so on.

"Counselors must be trained to develop profiles of families so they can provide more value-added information about private estates," McGowen said.

Shipley agrees. ''Preparation to provide families with information on a preneed or at need basis, or during tours, or when responding to telephone queries, is absolutely critical," he said. ''Preparation and training are the most important factors underscoring performance." Shipley himself trains his counselors for tours and giving private estates presentations to families.

Tap advocates for word-of-mouth awareness. A day after the Lohmans purchased Daytona Memorial Park, a well known realtor in the community, Edwin W. Peck, telephoned Lohman to request a private estates prearrangement. He not only sought a coveted spot for himself and his family, he wanted it to be in a private estates garden memorializing outstanding members of the community.

Peck's vision has snowballed. He has led the drive to invite others to be memorialized in Daytona Memorial Park's Legacy Lake. Respected members of the community receive letters penned by Peck on Lohman Family Properties letterhead summarizing key reasons why they should be memorialized in Legacy Lake. Moreover, word-of mouth awareness has also spread, thanks to Peck praising private estates memorialization in business meetings, luncheons and other social gatherings. Peck even leads tours through Legacy Lake for targeted community members.

Include private estates in all marketing vehicles. Cemeteries that successfully market private estates include private estates in all of their marketing tactics and programs. Cemeteries marketing private estates should:

• Feature private estates information in brochures. Mail distributions should be targeted with key brand messages (such as promoting private estates as the most distinct means to memorialize family members' achievements and legacies) or product messages ("We're introducing our new line of private estates designed to fit all your special needs").
• Package information kits about private estates for display in consultation rooms and news and trade media distribution.
• Position posters in consultation and seminar rooms.
• Develop videos that can be shown to families in consultation rooms.
• File clippings of news articles about your cemetery and private estates and place them in consultation and reception rooms.
• Place a design book featuring professionally shot photographs of private estates in consultation room".
• Feature private estates information and designs on your Web site.
• Organize seminars about private estates and preneed at least four times a year.

Explore and exhaust all avenues to see what works best for your cemetery. Marketing avenues that work best for you should be explored and pursued. Halkuff of the Alderwoods Group networks with public attorneys to seek out families that may be interested in private estates. He also acquires lists of people who have purchased high income automobiles.

If you don't already have a web site, develop one. The Web is a major information source for people researching products and services. No longer can it be ignored as a marketing tool in the memorialization industry.

Cemeteries incorporating the Web for their private estates marketing strategy often feature private estates information on the top of their sites' products page. You should, too. A good example is how The Catholic Cemeteries Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis features such information on its site,

It is important to regularly update your Web site. With a content management tool, you can update your site anytime to feature fresh information and promotions, including seminars or special tours you may want to promote on the home page or in the "what's new" section.

Additional information that will benefit families should also be featured. This can include a section explaining various stages of the grieving process and offering an emergency planning guide outlining various steps that need to be taken following the death of a loved one.

Your site could include highlights about new memorial sections being added to your cemetery or a cause-related drive you are organizing for the community, such as a campaign to support cancer research or a veterans memorial.

The objective is to turn your Web site into an information tool that people can use for their memorialization needs. The key goal in marketing private estates is to further educate people so that families will explore what you are providing.