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Going out

The dearly undeparted

June 19, 2003|Jessica Hundley | Special to The Times

Tyler Cassity set out a couple of years ago to change the way you feel about death. The owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery has been trying to transform death from the dreaded inevitable into -- if not your friend exactly -- something like a familiar and tolerated acquaintance.

The idea was to mount unconventional events. For example, Saturday there will be a Summer Solstice Celebration with a show that begins at 7 p.m., featuring poets, authors and musicians. Picnics and blankets are welcome.

"He's hip and he's visionary," says Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer, who works with Cassity as an advisor, "and what he's done with Hollywood Forever is amazing."

Still it's taken a couple of years for people to accept such a traditionally somber site as a place to turn to for entertainment.

"The philosophy from the start was that when the living come and interact with the dead in a peaceful way, it's not mournful, it's comforting," says Cassity. "The first big public event here was a screening of a Rudolph Valentino film, held at his grave on the anniversary of his death."

Since then, the cemetery has held a Day of the Dead ritual, a full-length theatrical production, an awards ceremony for the popular HBO drama "Six Feet Under," and a series of classic film screenings that are held every two weeks out on the green and manicured cemetery lawn.

Everything about Cassity seems at odds with the title "cemetery owner," which in most people's minds conjures up visions of stooped and gray-haired men, attired in dusty, moth-eaten tuxes. Cassity, on the other hand, is young, a man in his early 30s with the pink-cheeked freshness of someone five years younger. He is also handsome, in the square-jawed, bright-eyed manner of upstart lawyers and major league baseball players.

He grew up in the Midwest where, with his brother, he eventually founded a business that purchased and revamped antiquated funeral homes. He first drew notice when the business began offering clients videotaped memorials.

"The original idea was that cemeteries and the concept of what they were was changing," says Cassity. From videotaped memorials, it wasn't that much of a leap to movie screenings and other events. John Wyatt, founder of the film club Cinespia and one of the organizers of the screenings, says when people first hear the idea, "I think people envision sitting on gravestones.

"But it's the perfect place to see these films," Wyatt says. "There are historical Hollywood people buried there and the cemetery is bordered by the Paramount back lot. There's really no other place that could possibly be better."

*

Summer Solstice Celebration

Where: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Fairbanks Lawn, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Info: (323) 469-1181or www.hollywoodforever.com.

Also: Cinespia holds classic film screenings every two weeks; next is "Ball of Fire," June 28, 8:30 p.m., $10 admission.

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