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The New Cemeterians 

The future, they say, isn't about death. It's about life.

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo
"Have a fig," says Tyler Cassity, the new owner of the Hollywood Forever cemetery, plucking one from the tree outside his office. Twenty-eight years old, smartly dressed, and handsome enough to get work at the Paramount lot on the far side of the cemetery wall, Cassity seems oddly cast as a cemeterian. "Mmm, this is delicious," I say, tasting the fig. "Well, of course," Cassity replies, straight-faced, indicating some nearby graves. "Think of all the nourishment it's gotten." Then, catching the look of horror on my face, he bursts out laughing. "Just kidding," he says.

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.

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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.

The idea, put simply, is this. Instead of spending small fortunes on ornate coffins, Cassity proposes, we should spend our money on something that's actually going to keep. When someone famous dies, he points out, our TV screens are immediately held hostage by old film footage, photographs, and interviews with and about the deceased. Why shouldn't we - on a more modest level, anyway - get the same treatment? His idea is that while we are still alive, we should start putting together - with the help of a Forever biographer - what in effect is our own video memorial. This could include (depending on price) old photographs (with voice-over narration), mementos, letters, certificates, family genealogies, advice, etc., as well as edited home movies and a video interview conducted by a Forever biographer with you, the person who one day will not be a person at all.

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."

Press next page or previous page to move through the pages of the scrapbook. Touch any image to view it full size, the woman says again. Her voice is beginning to seem a little less soothing. I look at another picture, a photo of a college the man taught at, and the woman's voice comes on again. And again. And again. I wonder what it would be like to be the receptionist sitting 15 feet from the kiosk, listening to Press next page or previous page . . . all day long. I press on the "Video interview" icon and come up blank. "No tribute available," says a message on the screen. Of course. This is a "Bronze" biography, put together after the man's death, too late for a video interview. I touch another icon, a copy of a magazine article the man wrote, and start to read it, which isn't easy. Late-afternoon sunlight coats the glass in reflections. I have to squint to make out the text. Then, abruptly, the text vanishes. In its place are the nine photo-icons I originally chose it from. Press next page or previous page to move through the pages of the scrapbook. Press any image to . . . my hand shoots out for the "Pause" button.

Who comes up with this stuff? I can't help wondering. This isn't a "scrapbook," these aren't "pages," and I don't need to be reminded every 20 seconds to "turn" them. The problem with this sort of technology, it seems to me, is that although an enormous amount of intelligence has gone into it, very little seems to have made it back out. Kindly is no longer the word I would use to describe the woman's voice. Annoying is more like it. Listening to her is like waiting for a cab at LAX, prisoner of the Eternal Tape Loop: "FOR YOUR SAFETY AND SECURITY, PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE YOUR VEHICLE UNATTENDED. UNATTENDED VEHICLES ARE SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE TOW-AWAY! FOR YOUR SAFETY AND SECURITY . . ."

For relief, I go for a walk in the cemetery. It's evident that the renovation work is going full steam. Huge rolls of earth, like prehistoric truck tires, are lined up along the edge of the road where new water pipes are being installed. Sprinklers are going everywhere, soaking the grass and turning pale headstones a dark slate gray. Workmen in Forever uniforms talk busily into walkie-talkies.

I walk farther into the cemetery. A Latina has parked her beat-up brown Chevy in front of a 2-month-old grave. There's no headstone yet, and the freshly turned earth, on which she has placed a couple of potted plants, is beautifully black. The woman, who's wearing a floral-print dress and smoking a cigarette, stares at the grave, rearranges the flowers, gets something from her car, goes back to staring at the grave. It's silent here; there's no one around. The woman hasn't heard about the video biographies. She comes to the cemetery because, she says, "I like to be with my father."

She's not the first person I've seen tending a grave at the cemetery, and I always find the sight moving and comforting - not least because the people doing the tending are so obviously moved and comforted themselves. Boileau called this "focusing on death," which it probably is. No doubt images of her father in life are going through the woman's mind as she fiddles with the flowers, but no doubt images of her father dead and disintegrating beneath her feet are going through her mind also. But the tending of the grave, a sad pantomime of the attentions a woman might give her father in the days leading up to his death, seems to soothe her. No longer able to care for the body, she cares for the ground. One sees such things often at the cemetery: women (mostly) brushing dirt from a headstone as tenderly as they might wipe crumbs from a child's mouth. Even after she gets back in her car and drives off, the woman's gestures linger in the air. They may have done nothing for her father, but they certainly did something for her. They did something for me as well. In my mind, the woman in the graveyard communing with her dead father is an image from a universal language, but for Boileau, it's dead as Latin. It's all about "the death, the death."

But surely it's all about mourning?

The major contradiction at the heart of Forever Enterprises Inc.'s Hollywood division is, of course, land. On the one hand Cassity is promoting a technology that would seem to make the labor and expense of elaborate ground burial or cremation anachronistic; on the other, he's showcasing his new technology in a historic 62-acre swatch of deluxe real estate that will cost him several million dollars to renovate.

Though Cassity says, "It's not all about land anymore," he no longer feels (as he once did) that it's all about technology, either. Perhaps he's hedging his bets. My own sense is that he genuinely loves his surroundings. The beauty of the cemetery, the sheer relief one feels at being in a place so quiet, is, I suspect, something like a private joke for Cassity and Boileau as they expound on the wonders of fiber optics, beta test sites, video streaming, digital memorialization and the rest. After all, whenever they get tired of working on the cutting edge, they can spend their lunch breaks under the trees.

On my final visit, Cassity and I sit on a bench by the lake next to the William A. Clark Jr. memorial as ducks quack softly nearby. "What moves you the most here?" I ask him. "Oh," he says, laughing - this isn't a question he has to think about - "like when I close the gates and walk around knowing that there are 80,000 people here wanting me to take care of them. When it's just you and all of those stones and bodies, they have an amazing presence."

It's hard to know what to make of Cassity. He's likable and smart, but the first thing he did at Hollywood Forever was to give it that awful new name, probably to attract tourists. He talks about making the cemetery a "showcase" and a "museum," but are these what a cemetery should be? Do we really want to talk to dead people via holograms? Do we really want to be digitally preserved "forever," eternally ready, at the touch of a button, to spout homilies to great-great-grandchildren we'll never meet (and would probably find utterly alien if we did)? Perhaps we do.

At the end of our conversation, I tell Cassity about the woman mourning her father, and ask him if computerized technology might not be inimical to that kind of feeling. "I don't think of it as a computer, but as a window onto life," he answers, adding that he too is moved by the mourners in the cemetery. The problem is, there aren't many of them. (And of course he's right: The cemetery is empty.) "This isn't the one answer," he says, referring to the video biographies. "It's just one of the keys I'm experimenting with to get people back in here. Is it the cemetery's fault or society's fault that all these graves aren't polished?"

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