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Let Us Hit Pause and Reflect

L.A. at Large

At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the stories of the deceased live on in video biographies.

January 03, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the sun begins to set, sending long shadows across this palm-punctuated graveyard to the stars, a softly gurgling fountain and the flicker of an eternal flame invite contemplation in a secluded corner of the century-old Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Nearby, a flat screen, like a square blue porthole to the great beyond, is embedded in a monumental slab of stone that juts to the sky like a misplaced piece of Stonehenge.

With a gentle touch to the screen's sensuous aqua ripples, a visitor can enter this electric portal to Hollywood Forever's digital domain--an online archive of video biographies, where the voices, pictures, music and lives of 15,000 people, not all of them yet dead, are stored.

Recorded for posterity in bytes and rams, they are ready to be viewed on command. They can be downloaded from a computer at home (http://www.forevernetwork.com), from the cemetery's intimate six-seat Forever Theater, or one of three "Memorial Kiosks" like this.

A woman's voice that sounds like that of an efficient airline stewardess wafts from speakers concealed discreetly in a stand of bushes and bamboo. "Welcome to Forever," she says, and the screen melts to motion pictures, and music.

*

Since the dawn of recorded history, humans have sought to memorialize themselves for those who come after. The Egyptians left us pyramids, the early Christians left us catacombs, and Hollywood stars left us movie clips and mausoleums.

British author Evelyn Waugh satirized Hollywood's commercialization of death in his prescient 1948 novella "The Loved One," which was based on Glendale's legendary Forest Lawn Cemetery. (The story, set at Whispering Glades, a full-service funeral home for Hollywood's departed greats, features a bizarre love triangle between Mr. Joyboy, the ultimate embalmer, a crematorium cosmetician, and a young English poet.)

But with all his high-tech appurtenances, Hollywood Forever owner Tyler Cassity, who runs two similar cemeteries in Missouri, goes beyond the talking trees and moving curtains of Forest Lawn that inspired "The Loved One."

"I'm writing the sequel," jokes the cemetery's youthful owner, an aspiring novelist. "I'm collecting material. It won't have to be fiction."

Cassity, 30, and his partner and older brother, Brent, 33, are trying to transform the way we remember our loved ones by compiling a massive "library of lives."

The nerve center of this operation, Forever Studios, housed on the cemetery grounds in a 1920s Spanish-style Masonic Hall with soaring ceilings and painted beams, feels like a Silicon Valley start-up. Fresh-faced young adults in trendy black-rimmed glasses edit at fancy computers. Employees talk animatedly about the need for a "revolution" in the cemetery business. In the air, there is a feeling of mission, of purpose, and of money.

This month, a new program will be launched on the Web site that will allow cyber visitors to begin compiling their own biographies. Cassity said the cemetery is now equipped to preserve DNA remains (such as hair samples) of loved ones in an off-site deep freeze storage facility.

The Cassitys introduced the idea of video biographies at a cemetery in St. Louis. "As a culture, it's amazing how odd it seemed four years ago, and how relatively normal it seems to many people now."

'Revolutionizing' the Death Care Industry

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where more than 85,000 have come to their final resting place, is a quiet expanse of 62 green acres abutting Paramount Studios. Established in 1901 as the Hollywood Park Cemetery, it contains more dead movie stars than any other spot on the face of the Earth. Interred in its cool mausoleums and smooth green lawns are celluloid greats such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino and Tyrone Power.

But by the 1990s, the once well-tended grounds had fallen into disrepair. In 1998, Cassity, a dapper Midwesterner from a family in the "pre-need" funeral business, moved to California, bought the bankrupt, crumbling cemetery for $375,000, and set about "revolutionizing" the ossified death care industry. He renamed it and made it his laboratory.

Two years later, a saunter through the grounds reveals the changes. Old buildings have been restored, tilting tombstones righted. There are plans to nearly triple the number of crypt spaces in one of the two main mausoleums to 65,000.

Like Hubert Eaton, founder of Forest Lawn before him, Cassity says he wants to make cemeteries celebrations of life, rather than death. His philosophy derives from his own time spent as a young gay man in New York in the early '80s, when AIDS struck tragically and hard. "Everyone either was dying or knew someone who was dying," he said. "It kept death at the forefront of everyone's minds. "It gave me new perceptions of what mourning could be, and how to give it form.

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