Let Us Hit Pause and Reflect

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

By 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.     

"I saw that the traditional forms did not serve the purpose of the community. A priest or a member of the community reading a few words didn't do enough. So people had parties. People had poetry readings. Art and death have always had a very strong connection, and art emerged as the answer."     

From that experience, he says, the idea of video biography for the dead was born.     "It was something you could call art," he says. "Through the form of multimedia, you find an expression of life."      

The concept of creating mini-documentaries about ordinary people is not new; Steven Speilberg has chronicled the lives of Holocaust survivors with his Shoah Foundation. But the idea of marketing these mini-videos as a cemetery service was a departure.

Biographies With Personality      

The styles of the biographies, which are produced by Forever Studios, reflect the personalities of their subjects and their families. Some are simple, some are sophisticated. Some are narrated in broken immigrant's English. Others are entirely in Russian, Spanish or Armenian.     

The biographies--which are included in some of the funeral packages--range in price from several hundred dollars for a simple photo, to several thousand for dozens of pictures, captions, videos and audio narrative. (Costs for interment range from just under $1,000 for a bare bones funeral service, to $50,000 for lakefront plots.)      

The biographies of the stars are there--but cemetery staff emphasize their mission is to document the lives of normal people. Cemetery officials never miss a chance to impart their fervor.      

"Every time someone goes and doesn't tell their story, a library is lost," Andy Martinez, vice president of sales and marketing, gently tells an elderly woman who has come to place roses at her brother's crypt. En route to the mausoleum, he ushers her into the Forever Theater for a quick viewing of sample biographies.      

He sits her down and punches in a name. Elena De Bravo's biography is a family slide show, eloquently narrated.     

Black-and-white photos from her childhood in South America flash on the screen. She reminisces, her voice cracking: "My father taught me that a good book, a beautiful poem, a little bit of Mozart, a little bit of Chopin, walking in fall leaves, can fill you the way few things can."      

Martinez keys in another name: Katrina Vasquez Johnneva. She died this year at 26 of undisclosed causes. Causes of death can be confidential.      

In one picture, her father holds a tiny baby for a family baptism and recalls "meeting" her five hours after she was born. Her memorial tribute, which was played at her funeral is just pictures, and haunting, soulful music from the band she played in. To her personal soundtrack, they flash by: a mischievous girl with a puppy, a sultry teenager with dark hair and painted lips, a girl at a piano, Katrina singing with her band.      

Everyone Has a Story to Tell      

Jose Pleitez was so impressed with the funeral and the accompanying video tribute to his 6-year-old son Angel, who died of still-unexplained causes at school in October, that he quit his job at a property development company in the Valley to work at the cemetery.      

"For generations, my family will be able to see him," he said of his son. "Something like that will not be erased. Everywhere I go I can see it on the Internet. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see it. I will be able to say 'That was your uncle, your cousin.' "      

Cemetery employees repeat like a mantra that everyone has a story. They say that the biographies allow people to tell, through their particular stories, the story of the times in which they lived.      

Almost all of Zigmund Vays' family perished during the Holocaust. His parents were already buried at Hollywood Forever, but when he returned to his native Ukraine several years ago, he gathered pictures and sound for a family archive. He visited the small, abandoned graveyard where his ancestors were buried and brought back pictures. He interviewed people who remembered that time for the tape.      

He said the process evoked such sadness that he had to put it aside for a while.      

"In America there is not much interaction between generations," he said. "This is one little tool to give grandchildren a chance to see their grandparents, to learn a little more."      

As appealing as the idea is to some, it remains far from mainstream.      

Employees at several Los Angeles cemeteries said they had never heard of video biographies. And some didn't like the idea.      

"I would say that goes beyond the respect we give the decedent," said Ira J. Polisky, sales manager at Eden Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Mission Hills. "It seems to me that the person is at rest and maybe that person might not want all these facts about them dispersed to the general public. We are very concerned about the privacy of the people we watch over at Eden Memorial Park."      

But Connie Chadnow, a receptionist at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary, the resting place of Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood, gushed at the idea.      

"Wow, I've never heard of such a thing," she said. "That is really cool. When you think about it, there is so much history that these people have taken into the ground with them. If they could tell us their stories, that would be great.      

"Of course I'm an actress," she added. "But I know I would want that."      

To Remember and Honor Loved Ones      

On a sunny winter day, tourists stroll the cemetery's green grounds, and relatives tend the graves of their loved ones. Romanian immigrant Veronika Beianu, 81, believes in tradition. She visits her daughter Mariana's grave twice a week, watering the roses and poinsettias that cover her tomb. But she lights up at the mention of the high-tech biographies and hopes to have one made about her daughter this year.      

"I think it's a good idea to put up her pictures and her biography. She was beautiful. Elegant," she said, adding she has not been able to afford it until now.     

 In one corner of the cemetery, a mother and her teenage daughter from Paris read the graves on the ground and pose for pictures beside tombstones. They are visiting the dead stars and searching for relatives.      

They have never heard of video biographies, but they are fascinated. They traipse over to the mausoleum's Memorial Kiosk and seat themselves before the Forever console.      

As a narrated slide show begins and strains of classical music issue forth, they lean forward in delight and shoot each other surprised glances.      

"That's incredible," says 51-year-old Brigitte Berg. "This is America. It's only here you can find a thing like this."