IMMORTALITY BY THE MEGABYTE IN CASE OF DEATH HIT SAVE
Internet entrepreneurs are shaking up the funeral business: Instead of incense and a pine box, your loved ones might see you lying in state, forever, in a custom-made Web site.
by Doug Saunders Hollywood
When Florence Bradbury passed away last year, her ashes were interred in her home town of St. Louis, Mo. Yet if you cared to pay her a visit, you'd do better to walk past the graves of this Hollywood cemetery (among other locations), by the tombstones and mausoleums, to enter the stately building at the graveyard's north end. You would step up to a chrome-and-plastic kiosk, and tap your finger on a glowing computer screen. "Welcome to Forever," an icy, artificial female voice says from some unseen speaker. "Press 'Help' for instructions at any time." A few more taps, and Florence appears on the screen in grainy black-and-white, in the bloom of her youth, with audio commentary from family members; press another button and time will move forward, images will change to colour, and poor Florence will wrinkle, grey, stoop and become frail, her family's voices and laughter filling the air. You see, Florence is among the growing population who have chosen to pass away not just into the welcoming bonds of the earth, but also into a more novel, ethereal place: virtual reality, cyberspace, the Web. Instead of buying a plot of earth, her family has purchased some megabytes of computer memory, and filled them with our era's most hallowed memorial -- the biopic. After the film, another, more natural-sounding voice breaks the kiosk's silence. "They're modern hieroglyphics we're putting on tombs -- but now they move and speak," says Tyler Cassity, the 29-year-old who runs this unlikely business, Forever Memorials, "the world's foremost digital archiving and remembrance service." Though he owns a chain of U.S. cemeteries, Cassity does not fit the image of a death merchant. He looks strikingly like actor Matt Damon, is wearing fashionable Prada shoes, and speaks in an intellectual, wryly self-effacing tone. His employees, likewise, are mostly under 35 and distinctly non-morbid in character. As he guides his guests through the biographies in his viewing kiosk, Cassity rolls his eyes at the computer-generated voice. "Don't worry," he says, "we're going to get rid of her soon." A modern mercy killing. Cassity's firm is among the largest and most respectable of dozens of companies now offering memorials on the Internet, a surprising number of them based in Canada. Some E-death upstarts bear cute names like Virtual Heaven and Imminent Domain; some are owned by established funeral-service companies; most offer Web pages devoted to the deceased, purportedly maintained "in perpetuity," for as little as $50. The most audacious, finalthoughts.com, allows you to type E-mail messages, while you're still alive, to your friends and loved ones (and, conceivably, your enemies). When you finally kick it, those messages will spookily appear in those people's In boxes. The service's founder, Todd Krim, sees himself in a vanguard: "The Web is going to completely change the way we deal with death." While it certainly contains a strong element of slapdash Internet hucksterism, this is not just another routine incursion of the Web into a previously un-virtual facet of life. Cassity, the son of a traditional, cash-and-caskets funeral millionaire, has landed at the intersection of three enormous developments: The collapse of the old funeral industry, the transformation of North American mourning rites, and the age of the handicam. There has always been an air of flimsy illusion in the funeral business. Traditionally, it was a melodromatic imitation of the church, all hushed tones and grim faces, a piety designed deliberately to keep customers from asking twice about the preposterous prices. Cassity's father, a Minnesota lawyer, made a fortune from that formula 20 years ago, when he entered the "prearrangement" business, aggressively marketing funeral plans and burial plots to the still-living. Tyler Cassity and his older brother Brent, now 32, developed a taste for the industry's aggressive marketing tactics, but became disenchanted with its staid traditions -- the combination of gravity and greed that Jessica Mitford exposed in her 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death. In their late teens, they struck out on their own, just as the old style had begun to fall apart at the seams. Something has changed, for recent generations of North Americans, in the way death is marked. It may have something to do with television, which has replaced the solemn ode with the celebratory memoir; it may also have something to do with AIDS. Living in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis, Tyler Cassity watched as the gay community tossed away the old traditions of mourning and remembrance. "It was very interesting to see a generation that was young being forced to rethink death," he says today. "Think of the AIDS quilt -- it's a celebration, a patchwork of souvenirs, images and important symbols. It's not that different from what we're doing." Tyler soon set up shop here in Hollywood, which seemed ideally suited to his task. For one thing, this town has long been the very pinnacle of death-biz innovation, often crashing right off that pinnacle into a pink-tinted ocean of kitsch and grotesquerie. Evelyn Waugh's 1948 satirical novel The Loved One, based on Hollywood's hard-sell Forest Lawn cemetery, could well have been written today. In California, people do not like their death understated. But Hollywood provided Tyler Cassity something even more promising in the early 1990s, an idea that would initially offend his father -- a video-production studio. Using the cheap and readily available local talent, the studio took the boxes of videotape, super-8 film and snapshots that fill up people's basements and transformed them into TV-style biographies. For about $6,000, the Cassitys would make a movie about the deceased's life, to be shown at the funeral and kept by the family. It was a success. Cassity had finally found a use for the great tonnage of camcorder tape and photo film that trails behind our mortal path. Almost 9,000 videos have been made so far, and the on-line kiosks were added last year. "Society's been preserving its memories for years, but where do you put that information?" he says. "If you've got a box full of videotapes, what do you do with them? All these people have been collecting their life stories on tape and film and photos, but they need to make something with it." Perhaps we all dream that our home movies will someday be turned into a Hollywood film. The funeral industry has simply taken notice of that dream. "This is not a new idea," says Cassity. "It's what Hollywood has always done for its tributes; it's just like an A&E Biography. Now, what was once for Tyrone Powers is for everybody." And Cassity's business is really not all that different from his father's: While the old man sold burial plots by the foot, with a fee to keep them ever-green, the son is simply doing the same thing with megabytes. After all, the old business of selling graveyard space is not what it used to be. Last year, Canada's Loewen Group Inc., the second-largest funeral company in the world, filed for bankruptcy protection after its shares lost 95 per cent of their value, in part because discount-funeral firms (the Cassitys also own one of these) were taking a big chunk of the business. With Loewen's fall, investors jumped ship from the other major companies. Cemeteries and funeral homes, once tightly held by a few companies, suddenly were on the market, cheap. That fire-sale market transformed Cassity from a St. Louis kid into a Hollywood entrepreneur in a matter of months. Among the dozen properties he picked up across the U.S., he got the seedy old Hollywood Cemetery for $375,000 (U.S.) -- once-stately grounds that hold the graves of Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, Douglas Fairbanks, Jayne Mansfield and Bugsy Siegel. Aside from its tourist value, the cemetery lies right next to the sprawling Universal Studios (NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND: THIS IS INCORRECT. HOLLYWOOD FOREVER IS RIGHT BEHIND PARAMOUNT STUDIOS, NOT UNIVERSAL STUDIOS), and the neighbourhood was packed with young editors, technicians and Web designers who could create half-hour documentaries in a couple of days for under $6,000. Now, upstairs from the kiosk, in an enormous vaulted room that once housed a Masonic temple, a dozen young people tap away at computers and film-editing consoles, putting together digital tributes to the recently deceased and the legacy-obsessed living. In an adjoining room, a warren of operators works the phones, trying to sell the concept to more conventional stiffs. Down below, Cassity boasts about the building across the street -- a Pierce Brothers funeral home, a bastion of the old business, with a For Sale sign on its door. The Internet kids have arrived at the final gateway, and hacked it down with their usual glib abandon. "It's a very good time for us," he says, "a real window of opportunity." On the screen before us, the image appears of Hezekiah E. Allen, born in Jamaica in 1899 and deceased in Missouri in 1996. His wife's voice bursts from the speakers, in crystalline stereo: "This is the last photo of him I have," she is saying. "I wouldn't change anything. . . . Life is just remarkable, and I can't explain it -- nobody could know it until you lived it yourself." Unless, of course, you've paid a few thousand dollars to put that life in an electronic box, for a stab at immortality, or perhaps just the world's longest slide show.