Undertaking a dream

Cemetery sees future in vid biopics

Two twentysomethings sit in front of editing bays in a large, loft-like room on the second floor of an old Masonic lodge on a seedy part of Santa Monica Boulevard. They work quickly, under deadline. One digitizes, the other edits using SGI 3-D modeling equipment to create effects.

The activity is not unusual for a post-production facility — but how about for a cemetery?

For a little more than $4,000, you, too, may buy yourself or a loved one a Forever Biography at a Forever Theater near you.

You supply the video or film images, favorite songs, letters, certificates and other memorabilia, and Forever will assemble them into an interactive scrapbook that will be permanently stored on the Forever Network, accessible at Forever Theaters in cemeteries around the country and on the Web at http://www.forevernetwork.com.

If it sounds like a good sales pitch, it is. Business is brisk at Forever, located near Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

Under the leadership of brothers Tyler and Brent Cassity — who 18 months ago bought the Hollywood Forever Cemetery out of bankruptcy — the death-care industry has truly gone Hollywood. In addition to the biography programs, the Cassitys have initiated tributes to such Hollywood legends as Hattie McDaniel, who could not be buried in Hollywood when she died 47 years ago — the result of racism.

The Cassitys are tall, clean-cut, soft-spoken and mannerly men in their 30s. They come from St. Louis and a long line of undertakers. When they were teenagers, they conceived the idea of a visual cemetery, a place where families could come to pay tribute to their loved ones while watching testimonials.

But for some years, the brothers put their dream to rest: Brent studied acting and political science in his home town, while Tyler ventured off to New York City, where he took a lit degree from Columbia U.

Years later, the Cassitys found themselves entering the family business with a determination to change it.

“This business is a very staid business. It wasn’t changing,” recalls Brent.

Brent and Tyler began making video biographies some 15 years ago, but only 18 months ago, since they acquired Forever, have they begun to see their vision realized. At Forever, they have assembled some 2,000 biographies; add those to the more than 10,000 they have made over the past decade, and the Cassitys are two of the most prolific producers working in Hollywood.

But isn’t this all a bit too hip for cemeteries?

Not according to the Cassitys.

“I think cemeteries throughout history are places where people celebrate lives, explains Tyler. “We erect memorials so we can remember those who came before us. In the 20th century, the best way to remember someone is by seeing not their body but their body of work — in photographs, film and video clips, etc.”

Brent added, “We think the cemetery of the future is going to be a library of lives that’s not just for the famous, but for the famous to family and friends.”

A few years ago, when the Cassity team began putting touch-screens in cemeteries and talking about Web sites from which families all over the world could access visual biographies, people in the cemetery business laughed at them.

But, like true pioneers, the Cassitys have stayed the course and are quietly transforming the business.

Today, Forever is a clean, quiet oasis where you can feel far away from true deal-making. But if you miss the flickering images, you can always enter one of the Forever Theaters and take in a movie or two.