Renewing Our Faith in Funerals?

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."

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