By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The benefits, as Cassity sees them, are twofold. One, you can ensure (more or less) that something more of you than a set of dates and an epitaph is left behind; two, when the time comes for your children to tell their children about you, those 21st-century toddlers will actually be able to see you alive and talking onscreen - as will their own children and grandchildren.
And this is only the beginning. Eventually, according to Bill Obrock, Forever's excitable futurist, cemeteries will be places whose primary function is the storing of memories, not bodies. "In a few decades," he tells me, speaking over the phone from company headquarters in St. Louis, "there'll be Forever centers with no bodies there at all. They'll be places to celebrate life, not death. We may have a wonderful holographic virtual-reality room where you can sit down and chat with your grandfather and ask him advice. It sounds like fiction, but that's what we're building. It'll be a place to meet your ancestors and meet your culture using the most technologically advanced systems we can find." And, yes, he assures me, there will be cafés in cemeteries.
Jay Boileau, vice president of research and development at Forever, is equally confident that in the future people will expect more from a cemetery than a bit of rock with a name etched on it. "I think there'll still be a draw to the cemetery for that more meaningful experience," he tells me, pale-blue eyes staring intently through black-framed half-glasses. "Particularly if you have a family that's interred there. You're going to come in, look at the permanent marker, leave some flowers - but then I think it's natural that you're going to want to go to the [Forever] theater and relax and remember. The whole idea of Forever is really about celebrating a person's life rather than celebrating their death. So much of the death-care industry and the process people go through, they just can't see beyond the death of the person. It's all about the death, the death. You know, they go look at that marker. All that marker says to 'em is: Death."
It's a bit surprising to find someone like Boileau working in a cemetery. With his blue shirt and khaki pants, small neat features and mussed hair, he looks like the kind of articulate, market-friendly cyberworker you might expect to find peering out of a magazine ad. But then, it's not as if he's digging graves for a living: He's making video biographies. "It's been a really personally fulfilling process to take a regular person and express the meaning of their life," he says.
To "express the meaning" of someone's life takes Boileau, if the client has opted for the "Bronze" package ($1,495), about a day. Silver ($2,495) and Gold ($3,495) packages can take two to four days; a Platinum ($4,495) package, which includes video footage of a special "celebration, party or gathering where friends and family will be interviewed for a more complete biography," might take a full week.
But how much "meaning" goes into one of these biographies? Forever This Week, the company's relentlessly chirpy in-house magazine, allows us a quick peek behind the scenes. "Kansas Biographer Julie Bean gets two thumbs up for her work with the Hunter-Streeter family," reads one entry. "Being a Forever biographer is no piece of cake! First of all, you have to drive to the family's home having never met them before. Then you must ask them for family photos so you can take pictures of them! Finally, you have to ask if they would tell you the story behind the pictures. It may sound simple enough, but it's not. Some of these visits can become pretty emotional, which adds extra pressure on these Biographers. Way To Go Julie Bean!"
Press next page or previous page to move through the pages of the scrapbook, says a kindly female voice emerging from two small speakers on top of the Memorial Kiosk. Touch any image to view it full size. Helpless to resist such honeyed vocal cords, I do as I'm told. The screen at the center of the Memorial Kiosk is perhaps 14 inches wide, and there are nine small photo-icons on it. I tap one of them, and it blooms into a picture of a man lying on a couch, in a shirt and tie, in - according to the caption - 1966. The glass on the screen is extremely thick, like that of an ATM machine. Looking at this man is a bit like staring at a piece of amber with a million-year-old fly in it. The fly is never going to get out. I continue to stare, mildly fascinated.
Press next page or previous page to move through the pages of the scrapbook, the kindly female voice repeats, as the man disappears from view. Touch any image to view it full size. I press on various icons. I view baby pictures and graduation pictures, pictures of a man with a beard and of the same man without a beard. Then I come upon a photograph showing, in closeup, a lovingly battered paperback held together with a rubber band. A voice, the voice of the man's son, emerges from the speakers and ricochets around the entrance hall. "He was a James Joyce scholar, and a James Joyce lover. This is his well-handled copy of Ulysses. I don't ä know how many he went through, but this is the one he had at the end." The voice is earnest, but it is also oddly public, perhaps because it doesn't know who it's talking to. Friends, relatives, great-great-grandchildren with silicon "add-ons" in their brains? This is a performance, after all. This is going to last "forever."