Los Angeles March 2001

The Hollywood Forever Way of Death

Digital immortality—and not just for the stars
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Illustration by Gregory Manchess

As a counselor at Hollywood Forever, a sixty-four-acre cemetery abutting Paramount Studios, Ilania Hofler had guided Maurice Mills's survivors through the logistical and emotional difficulties of interment. She personally delivered the death certificate for Mills, a forty-four-year-old African-American telecommunications-equipment installer, to his parents' home. At the funeral service she made sure that all the guests signed the registry. Three weeks later, with the family again gathered around her, Hofler assumed a new mantle—that of the deceased's multimedia biographer.

With a few manipulations of her Sony Mavica camera Hofler uploaded fifteen photos of Maurice, dating from infancy to a few years back, into the cemetery's digital archives. "Now comes the good part," she said. Setting up a microphone, she advised the family to reminisce without worrying about the two-minute time limit that would apply to each person's contribution. The cemetery's production editors would take care of the trimming. "We're not stingy around here," she said. "We'd rather edit it than miss the punch line."

The first person to know Maurice was, of course, his mother, so Hofler began with her. For Florence Mills, it seemed an awesome task, even something of a burden, to have to talk into the recorder about her son's quirks, beliefs, and ambitions. A black-and-white photo trembled in her fingers; she read her memories haltingly from notes on the back of an envelope. "He would like to get out of the stroller," she said, looking at the photo, which shows Maurice as a toddler. "He wanted to get down and get going."

And so Maurice did, walking at nine months, chasing livestock on his grandfather's Alabama farm as a child, tooling around Los Angeles on his motor scooter in junior high, speeding away with his mechanic's tools to rescue broken-down taxis as a young man, selling used Caddies, earning a technical degree. After Florence Mills and Maurice's father, Willie J. Mills, narrated all this motion, Joyce Jones, the mother of Maurice's first two children, found herself staring down at a snapshot of Maurice—at the time of the photo a beautiful stranger—sitting in a maroon Grand Prix. "He drove up," Jones remembered, "and I'm like, 'Look at this handsome guy looking at me ... Maybe he's interested in me.'" They started dating soon after. "I was young; I was seventeen, and he was eighteen. And I just remember this time of my life as being something that I'll never forget, like the first time I met Maurice."

Millions can meet Maurice now, in death—countless more than could ever have known him during a lifetime without notoriety or fame. Access to the wistful memories Hofler recorded is not limited to his survivors; anyone can find Maurice's life story online, at forevernetwork.com. Three centuries hence a social historian investigating the aspirations of African-American telecommunications workers in late-twentieth-century southern California might pull up Maurice's multimedia biography, part of which is set to the music of Heatwave.

After they've scrolled through Maurice's story, visitors to the site can move on to those of Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Like Maurice, these luminaries are buried in Hollywood Forever, which until recently was known as Hollywood Memorial Park. The name was changed by Tyler Cassity, who bought the cemetery in 1998, after it had declared bankruptcy. "Here, we're at the center of a virtual culture, a world that is made up of film and media and content," Cassity told me late last year. "Such a high proportion of the people here have content-rich afterlives."

Cassity, who is thirty-one, is mining this rich material to make multimedia narratives not just of Hollywood Forever's elite occupants but also, eventually, of every person who finally comes to rest there. To date, some 1,500 Hollywood Forever biographies have been composed, most of them for people buried since Cassity took over. The celebrity biographies were written by professional historians Cassity hired for the purpose; the rest were put together by Hollywood Forever biographers with the help of surviving family members. Cassity's aim is to provide digital immortality, backed up on the cemetery's master tape and available for viewing in the facility's scattered interactive kiosks. "We need to find a new paradigm," Cassity said, "because the old model is increasingly not fulfilling its purpose."

An elaborate framework supported that old model: gargantuan flower arrangements; the ersatz religiosity of funeral directors; the solemn purring of organs; premium caskets of pure titanium, their lids propped open to display prettified cadavers—all the trappings that Jessica Mitford excoriated in The American Way of Death (1963). But Cassity has even more means at his disposal. The postmortem biographies he creates incorporate video, photographs, e-mail, Super 8 footage, answering-machine messages, and recorded testimonials—a far cry from the mute dash that alone separates birth and death dates on a tombstone. Cassity's offerings range from a modest $595 Album—the option selected by Maurice Mills's survivors—to a $4,195 Platinum package, which includes professional narration and a feature-length video.

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