Renewing Our Faith in Funerals?

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.

Hollywood Forever

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.

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