|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
If Dr. Hubert Eaton, the self-styled "builder" of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, was the man who put Southern California at the vanguard of the cemetery industry in the 20th century, Tyler Cassity may be the man who keeps the region at the head of the class in the next. With baby boomers heading en masse toward the big sleep, those with a stake in the matter are wondering whether they will be as demanding in death as they have been in life. Will they want "options" beyond what style coffin they get to lie in? Or what kind of urn holds their "cremains"? Cassity is betting they will, and with his video-biography service, aimed at the all-important pre-need market, he is at the forefront of a movement that may one day transform your average bone orchard into a wired necropolis where the dead talk and the living come to ask questions. And, naturally, sip complicated coffee at a memorial café.
Hollywood Forever (which includes Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery and Beth Olam Cemetery) occupies a 62-acre plot of land that runs along Santa Monica Boulevard between Van Ness and Gower. Under its former owner, the place had started to turn into a bankrupt wilderness of brown grass, overturned tombstones, and mausoleums with leaking roofs. Perhaps that's why so many people stopped coming. But probably not. As Cassity points out, white Americans, Americans whose parents did not arrive here recently from Latin America or Eastern Europe or elsewhere with cast-iron family values in their luggage, no longer visit cemeteries much, and many of them don't want to be buried. They would prefer to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Pacific from a plane - or, like those who took posthumous part in the world's first "memorial space flight" on April 21, 1997, have their remains sent into perpetual Earth orbit on a kind of winged coffin called Celestis O1.
Cassity wants to do something about this. Sort of. The death business, he tells me during one of my visits to his office, "needs an innovation." The death business, he would probably agree, also needs a good publicist. Ever since Jessica Mitford savaged the industry in The American Way of Death in 1963 (a revised version, The American Way of Death Revisited, was published this fall), journalists have been snooping around funeral homes and cemeteries for the latest piece of scandalous price gouging. For the most part, they haven't left empty-handed. According to an article published this March in U.S. News and World Report, burying someone now costs something like $8,000.
What's unusual about Cassity, an English-literature major (and aspiring novelist) who graduated from Columbia University in 1992, is that not only has he read Mitford's book, he also claims to like it. He's also read The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh's hilarious send-up of Forest Lawn, and claims to have had "Jessica Mitford-like" responses to certain aspects of the trade - like embalming, for instance. But people who own cemeteries are not supposed to be Evelyn Waugh fans, and they are certainly not supposed to have "Jessica Mitford-like" responses to anything. So why, this past April, did Cassity plunk down $375,000 to become the owner of one of Los Angeles' most famous cemeteries?
Temporarily housed in the entrance of Hollywood Forever's business offices is an elegant touch-screen console that's twice the size of a jukebox and doesn't take quarters. There are dead people inside. To get them to talk, all you need to do is type their names on the screen. Cassity calls it the Memorial Kiosk, and it may turn out to be the biggest thing to hit the funeral business since . . . well, whatever the last thing was.
"The industry has been waiting for an innovation for 100 years," Cassity tells me, adding that it's "amazing" to see cemeterians get excited about something. Cassity himself doesn't sound particularly excited. He's what Seinfeld would call a "low-talker," verging on a mumbler. His humor tends toward the ironic and dry, and he walks like someone with a limp, though he doesn't actually have one. The death business strikes him as funny; even more amusing is the fact that he's in it. (In fact, he grew up in it. His St. Louis family once owned 13 funeral homes and cemeteries and now owns and operates two insurance companies.) Nonetheless, with his idea for what he calls "video biographies," which he invented with his older brother and business partner, Brent, Cassity believes he's come up with something big.