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COLUMN ONE : New Niches for Funeral Marketers : Gypsies, Buddhists and the Baha’i are among groups courted by an industry that is mixing culture and commercialism to offset a decline in traditional burials.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lou Carlson puffed to the top of a grass hillock in a new, tombstone-free area of Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.

With a sweep of his arm, Carlson, a Fairhaven family service counselor, proudly enunciated the melodic Persian name of his 3-month-old marketing brainstorm: “This is Goo-lis-tahn Jah-veed.”

In the Baha’i community, Gulistan-i-Javid , or the Eternal Gardens, evokes memories of a historic Baha’i cemetery in Tehran dug up last year to make way for an Iranian cultural center.

At Fairhaven, it’s the latest in mortuary niche marketing: 243 prime burial plots pointed feet first toward the Baha’i holy city of Acre in Israel.

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“You have to do it,” said Carlson, who keeps both the Muslim and Baha’i holy books in his briefcase. “We figure out our future by taking a look at who’s living around us. What the death certificates show is the changing community. Instead of Smith, Jones and Weber, we have Trinh, Ramirez and Amamat.”

These days, perhaps the best way to see who’s living in Southern California is to take a look at who’s dying.

A decade ago, Southern California funeral homes and cemeteries could count on a steady stream of traditional, mostly white, Protestant funerals to fill their bank accounts and burial plots.

Now many funeral directors are pushing aside the Ethan Allen-style furniture to install fire-resistant tile floors to catch ashes from Buddhists’ incense and ceiling fans to disperse the perfumed haze. Or they are opening sacrosanct embalming rooms to relatives for Muslim bathing rites.

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The way they see it, in the ‘90s it’s not enough to christen an area, install a religion-specific monument and hope people will pay $995 for a perpetual-care burial plot--then a few thousand more for a service.

Funeral directors are studying up on the rites of Samoans, Syrians and Hindus. And where once there was a mortuary hush, they are allowing round-the-clock tape-recorded chanting of Buddhist monks.

Others are courting leaders of immigrant communities. The Douglass Family Mortuaries in Paramount became so well known as “the Gypsy mortuary” that it has just such a listing in the white pages.

These specialized pitches are finding takers. Although some customers see the services as kitschy versions of homeland customs, most welcome the interest--whatever the motivation.

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At Fairhaven, Carlson extols his funeral home’s attention to sacred Baha’i burial rituals in 18-minute infomercials and tries to attract Muslims with full-page ads in Persian in the Iranian Yellow Pages.

His 83-year-old cemetery’s next development will include high-tech, sensor-activated graveside incinerators so Buddhist mourners can burn paper “Hades” money and models of homes that are supposed to ease a loved one’s journey in the next life.

“Any smart businessman considers the business aspects of meeting with the leaders of some of these groups. ‘Here I am. Here’s what I can offer. How do you folks like things done?’ ” said Michael Kubasak, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Assn. and president of a Burbank funeral home.

Other directors are more blunt. The burial business is big business, at $8 billion a year. What the industry is looking for are people still willing to spend the money to be buried. And if a little cultural awareness helps bring them in, so be it.

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“You take the stats for white Europeans. A large percentage, huge, are getting cremated,” said Chick Hinckle, president of Angel’s Lawn Cemetery and Funeral Home in Anaheim. In California, 43% of the 218,000 people who died in 1993 were cremated, more than twice the national average, according to the California Funeral Directors Assn.

Many families opt to rent, rather than buy, caskets for viewing or purchase $75 cardboard cremation caskets, then sprinkle their loved one’s remains at sea. Funeral directors, Hinckle said, “are going to go where they can get the dollar.”

Hinckle and others link the trend to the dwindling numbers of Anglo worshipers in local churches. The traditional, religious burial ceremonies are no longer relevant to non-churchgoers. And the standard sales pitch--that an expensive casket equals respect for the dead--is finding fewer buyers.

Today’s smart mortuaries are hiring Latino funeral directors to accommodate Roman Catholic Latino families who still prefer traditional funerals, experts say, or are catering to Asian families that generally will buy the most expensive caskets, although most plan for cremations.

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“I haven’t done an Episcopal funeral in an Episcopal church in ages. Direct cremation. That’s the way they go,” Carlson said. “But Asian families, they’ll select the nicest caskets--hardwoods, gorgeous cherries with white velvet interiors. Those run about $4,200.”

Which all means taking the long view. Last rites are one of the last holdouts against assimilation.

“Food and burial practices are the strongest indicators of ethnic identity I’ve found,” said Karen Leonard, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine who has studied the funeral practices of Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus in Southern California.

The bottom line: Dollars invested in marketing to immigrant groups will pay dividends for years.

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On a sweltering August afternoon, about 75 people gathered under a green tent at Fairhaven’s Baha’i cemetery to send off Khalil Vajdi, patriarch of an Irvine family, with prayers chanted in Arabic.

Before the ceremony, Carlson solemnly greeted mourners by saying, “Alla’u’abha , the Baha’i greeting meaning “God is most great.” Many of the Baha’is at the funeral, among an estimated 10,000 in Southern California, knew of Carlson from his infomercial.

“Is that marketing or is that cultural sensitivity? I consider it to be both and I’m fine with that,” said Dan Hicks, a Baha’i from San Clemente.

Farshad Jahed, 36, of Irvine said having a separate cemetery is a form of segregation, but it also provides a sense of identity.

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“In Eastern countries each religion has their own special cemetery,” he said. “This cemetery recognizes Baha’i as an independent religion.”

(The Baha’i faith was founded by Baha’u’llah, believed to be a manifestation of God, in the Middle East in the 19th Century. It teaches the unity of all religions and of mankind.)

Across the street, in the largest of Fairhaven’s five visitation rooms, dozens of Tongans gathered to mourn the passing of a relative who was 49 and the father of three.

Dressed in taovalas, stiff skirts woven of dried tree bark in the South Pacific nation, they sang hymn after hymn in Tongan, broken only by the widow’s anguished wails. The powerful, mournful sound of their voices filled the corridors and wafted into the parking lot, where their children laughed and played.

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Frances Tuakalau, 26, said her family has come to Fairhaven from as far as Pomona and Ontario since her mother was buried there 15 years earlier. Tuakalau said family members tried another funeral home, but did not return after directors there told mourners to “be quiet, get together, get inside or go home already.”

“I think it was because of our (skin) color,” she said. “They more understand what our traditions are here.”

Muzammil Siddiqi, religious leader of the Islamic Society of Orange County, said it is plain “good business” for mortuaries to cater to the needs of his community. A friendly mortuary can guarantee business from Muslims across Southern California, he said.

Three years ago, Angel’s Lawn in Anaheim sold part of its 22-acre cemetery to the Muslim Mortuary and Cemetery Committee to establish a traditional Islamic burial ground.

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Today, in the midst of the lush grass of the cemetery proper, there’s a 3/4-acre lot bordered by oleanders where about 200 headstones sit on mounds of powdery dirt, all angled east toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Angel’s Lawn, contrary to most cemeteries, allows Muslims to be buried without a casket so that no Muslim leaves the world richer or poorer than another. It also has opened up its traditionally off-limits embalming rooms--for an additional fee of $310--to allow Muslim family members to wash and enshroud the dead before burial.

Under Muslim law, no equipment is allowed to run over the graves and the deceased are laid to rest next to the last Muslim buried there. But as in life, Sunni and Shiite Muslims keep their distance. The Shiites have a separate burial ground a few dozen yards away.

The funeral industry’s new marketing is putting the squeeze on long-established immigrant funeral homes, such as the 70-year-old Fukui Mortuary in Los Angeles.

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Clients of Japanese ancestry from Fresno to San Diego still travel to Fukui.

“Some of the third- or fourth- generation Japanese living in areas that are not Japanese, when someone dies they come back to the Japanese community,” said counseling manager Nobuo Osumi.

But he said things are changing.

More are finding their needs met almost as well by non-Japanese mortuaries such as Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, which features a Cherry Blossom Lawn, complete with Japanese lanterns and a meditation house, he said.

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At 2,600-acre Rose Hills, which bills itself as the world’s largest cemetery, a daily computerized list of 30 or so services resembles a United Nations of names and funeral preferences.

Among items in the gift shop are bright red portable incinerators for graveside rituals--purchased on the cheap in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and sold to Buddhist customers for $34.

On a recent day, plumes of smoke feathered skyward from a steep, green hillside called the “Garden of Serenity.” Each curl of smoke marked the mourning ceremony of a Buddhist family.

On one wind-swept corner, four members of a Chinese family stacked fat oranges and flowers beside a grave. Then, while the young son stoked the flames, mother and daughter dropped crumpled handfuls of fake money, good luck symbols and paper clothing into a rusty half of a metal drum, easing the family matriarch’s way in the next world.

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“The big mortuary companies are catering to other ethnic groups to try and get more business,” Osumi said. “I think it’s OK. We learn from competition.”

Six years ago, the Peek Family Funeral Home in Westminster took a look at its newest neighbors and built a chapel for its Southeast Asian Buddhist clients. It included fans to draw off the thick smoke of burning incense, tables for temporary shrines and a kitchen for preparing food for funeral guests.

The new approach paid off. Last year, 40% of its 450 funeral services were Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Buddhist, said Terry Stark, a Peek funeral director. At an average of $7,000 each, including cemetery space, the services brought in more than $1 million.

In the past two years, the home has hired three Vietnamese funeral directors. This year, Peek built a new crematory next to the chapel, with a viewing room so family members and friends could watch the body enter the furnace.

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“We may have 50, 60, 70 people present to watch the body go in,” Stark said. “The Vietnamese really insist on this.”

But Stark said the funeral home, associated with Westminster Memorial Park and Mortuary, also had another reason for building the chapel. “We lost a lot of business because of the incense and the chanting,” he said.

This year, Cypress College, one of only three places on the West Coast that trains morticians, enrolled the first Vietnamese student in its mortuary science program.

Qui Ngo, a 56-year-old former Saigon surgeon living in Orange, said he vaulted a huge cultural hurdle just by signing up. In Vietnam, pallbearers are all professionals, and the job of handling the dead is taken only by those of the lowest class. The rituals are performed by monks or the deceased’s eldest son.

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American-style funeral homes are “quite new to them,” said Ngo, who arrived in the United States in 1992. “There’s a real need. They have some difficulty in communicating their traditions to (morticians) here.”

Five years ago, nearly half of the United States’ morticians were white men, and 36% were white women. By the year 2000, 42% will be white women, 22% will be immigrants and 21% will be minorities. Just 17% will be white men, according to funeral industry projections.

About half of the 80 students in the two-year Cypress program are women and minorities. Program director Doug Metz said the school struggles to keep current with new--at least to local morticians--customs. The 1994 funeral rites and customs textbook already is outdated, he said.

“If I were to go to a predominantly black community, I’d know what to expect,” said Stephanie Goodwin, 42, a former financial controller who graduated from the school this summer. “But with Southern California there is no ‘predominantly’ anymore.”

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Some funeral homes, such as Allen-Salas Funeral Service in Bell Gardens, find themselves specializing almost by accident.

Members of the sprawling Gypsy community, not welcome at many mortuaries, gave their blessing, along with future business, to funeral director Alfred Estrada after he satisfied the boisterous demands of one of their funerals. Now, Gypsies knock on his back door in the night when someone dies.

“They know where I live and they like to have the viewing right away,” Estrada said. “We are the ones that put up with them.”

Gypsy mourners typically stream in from across Southern California, lugging enormous barbecues and mountains of food and drink. “We have a big parking lot here. They have a big feast throughout the night and then, the following morning, the person is buried,” said Estrada, one of Allen-Salas’ managing partners.

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During the night, the chapel doors are thrown open to the parking lot so mourners can bring the deceased steaming plates of food and place items in the casket. “If the person smoked, they light a cigarette for them. They put in lipstick, telephones, Listerine, toothbrushes,” Estrada said.

Like other funeral directors, Estrada said accommodating the needs of a changing clientele is the only way traditional funeral homes will thrive.

And that means being prepared to stow a body away if a Buddhist monk-astrologer determines that the scheduled service date or time is inauspicious.

Peek’s Stark swallowed his surprise at his first Samoan funeral last year when each guest took a smiling snapshot with the deceased. “They told me they think the ghost of the deceased will come back and they want to prove they were at the funeral,” he said.

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Yen Do, editor of the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster, said Vietnamese services, usually reflecting social status as much as religious beliefs, are taking on elements of modern-day America. Before, mourners would buy elaborate, six-foot-tall paper models of homes to burn at the grave site for the deceased to use in the next life.

Not anymore, Do said. “Now, social status at the funeral is providing a two-hour video of the service.”


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