Imagine a burial with no casket or tombstone, incessant chanting, and no embalming. Such ceremonies are not only occurring in distant countries with distinctive cultures, but also in the great state of California.
Tyler Cassity is a smooth-talking 36-year-old cemetery mogul who is taking death by storm. He is creator of video diaries for the dead, movies shown on mausoleums and now a brand new "green" cemetery in San Francisco. It's the latest offering from a man who -- in a manner of speaking -- wants to change the way you die.
"I think death feels always closer to me than it does to others," Cassity told "Nightline" in a rare interview.
Cassity bought Forever Fernwood in 2004 and just reopened it last month. A section of the 150-year-old cemetery where 35,000 people are buried is now set aside for green burials, an idea that Cassity thinks is long overdue.
'Find Meaning in the Process'
"Where did we all go wrong, how did we get so separated from natural processes, how did our foods get commoditized, how did everything we do get so distant that something as simple as 'put me into the ground and put a tree there and come and remember me' can seem new again?" Cassity pondered. "We're merely reflective of a whole cultural movement. I think the timing is right."
There are now over 6,000 cemeteries in the United States, and at last count, just five were green. Cassity espouses the philosophy that says we should return to the earth from whence we came, without all the adornments that the $11 billion funeral service profession has convinced us we need. At Fernwood, you can be laid to rest in a biodegradable shroud with just a shrub, or a rock, or nothing at all to mark the location.
Cassity's ideas haven't been embraced by the rest of the industry.
"If you think that the rules are in place because they have to be that way, that's probably a business concept that someone put in the whole tradition," he said. "You don't have to be embalmed, you don't need vaults, you don't have to have anybody telling you how it has to be done other than yourself and how you cope and find meaning in the process."
But humans have been dying forever, so why change things now?
Cassity said he's not changing things, and that he's "too old to be a radical."
"I'm responding to a change and I'm responding in a different way. My response is that all I'm going to do is find out what it will take to get people to come back in here and believe in this place again and believe in funerals again and believe in cemeteries again."
While "green" is the latest concept from Cassity, what he is really about is choice.
"Often people would say, could we do all of this ourselves? Can we keep the body at home and care for it? Our answer was, of course, that has always been done. Can we be a part of the burial itself, can we cover the grave? Of course."
Cassity said his policy is that "as long as it's not dangerous our illegal, we say yes," adding that he has yet to encounter a dangerous or illegal request.
With his combination of quirkiness and leading-man looks, perhaps it is no surprise that Hollywood found Cassity. He was part of the inspiration for the HBO series "Six Feet Under" and he served as a consultant for the show, often bringing his own experiences to story lines.
In a way, Cassity was born into this business. His father made a fortune selling pre-need funeral insurance, and brothers own and operate several cemeteries. Still, he never saw the funeral business as his destiny. "I grew up wanting to write and to teach and to find some way to read a lot."
After earning a degree in English from Columbia University, Cassity found a way to bring these aspirations to the family business. He developed a concept called "Lifestories" -- digital biographies and films to commemorate someone's life at the time of death -- but Cassity's big breakthrough came when, 10 years ago, he bought a dingy, decrepit cemetery wedged between the famed Hollywood sign and Paramount's back lot. Cassity cleaned up Hollywood Memorial Park and turned it into a tourist attraction called Hollywood Forever, generating some $10 million in annual revenue.
The cemetery is home to celebrity graves including those of Cecile B. Demille, Hattie McDaniel, John Huston and Rudolph Valentino, and Cassity has even thrown open the gates to show movies to the public at 10 bucks a head, showing the films on the side of mausoleums.
"I hate to say that I have a cemetery that will have a sold out movie tonight, or tomorrow," Cassity said, but he believes that "life and death in Hollywood means a little something different. If you're living or dead, the opportunity to have your work shown in front of 2,000 appreciative people, I think everyone likes that."
But is this really respectful? Should cemeteries be fun? Cassity said one of the strange parts of his job is "trying to postulate what the dead want."
"If I'm John Huston, I think I'm pleased that 2,000 people have gathered on a Saturday night, young people with picnic baskets on dates with friends…[and] I'm up there as John Huston," Cassity said. "I think John Huston as a dead person would be pleased."
'I Work for the Deceased'
In his circuitous, creative, sometimes convoluted way, Cassity clearly sees himself as an envoy of the dead.
"I see it from the perspective, it is my job, as much for the living, I feel as president of these cemeteries, my charge is also for the dead," he said. "Unlike anyone else, I feel like I work for the deceased here, I work for those all around us resting."
There is no questioning his sincerity, and at times he almost seems oblivious to the oddness of the profession.
"I don't know if I know what strange is," Cassity said.
You might say Tyler Cassity lives in a world -- and netherworld -- without strange. So how does he want to be buried when he dies?
"I want to be buried at each of the places I worked on, which is illegal," he said. "I'm probably going to have to be cremated even though my tendency is to want natural burial. I couldn't imagine not having a place I've chosen in Hollywood Forever, there's a special tree we're going to have where I want to be buried here. It wouldn't be the same if I didn't have some place at each cemetery where I wanted to be, I'm probably going to have at least three burial places."