The Hollywood Forever Way of Death

Digital immortality—and not just for the stars

By Ed Leibowitz

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.

Tyler Cassity is a scion of a St. Louis funeral-home-and-cemetery concern. However, his ambitions were always artistic. At the age of thirteen he began tape-recording his great-grandmother's recollections, capturing the sauciness of her gossip, the timbre of her laugh. When he left for Columbia University, five years later, it was understood that his brother, Brent, would take over the business while Tyler pursued a literary calling.

Ensconced behind the mammoth desk in his office at the cemetery, surrounded by a library that includes Deathing, by Anya Foos-Graber (1989); Final Curtain, by Margaret Burk (1996); Yiddish Wisdom, by Kristina Swarner (1996); and City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis's apocalyptic meditation on Los Angeles, Cassity recounted his journey back to the graveyard. He spoke in a hushed monotone; his bangs hung, like those of a 1920s prep-schooler, over liquid blue eyes. His suit, a more somber blue, bore the stamp of a tasteful, and expensive, designer.

"During my first twenty-eight years I wanted to be a writer," Cassity said. After graduating from college he became the assistant to the executive director of PEN, an international organization of writers. He wrote some stories, drawing mostly on the family business for material, until he determined that the audience for mortuary fiction was too small. "What I wanted was immortality," Cassity recalled. Without mass acclaim there was no assurance against oblivion. "If you are one of the point-five percent that attains celebrity," he said, "people will compile your biography with or without your consent, and if you create something to be seen and read, people will preserve it for you. But we have fewer and fewer rituals for celebrating the common life."

When he bought Hollywood Memorial Park, Cassity could scarcely hide his contempt for the established order of the cemetery business. "The industry has an amazing capacity not to look at what society is thinking," he told me at the time. "It hasn't had a major innovation for a century. We need to find a new paradigm. Digital cemeteries are my own conceptual answer." Two years later the 2000 National Funeral Directors Association convention was abloom with digital wizardry, and Cassity now finds himself facing online competitors with names like plan4ever and HeavenlyDoor.com.

Cassity moved to Los Angeles in 1998. He has added a cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri, to his digital domain—which is called Forever Enterprises—and has secured a letter of intent that will enable him to buy eight cemeteries in greater Chicago and one in Minneapolis. He has dispatched film crews to document birth and the first months of infancy for parents who have pre-ordered the recording of their children's lives. He has Webcast two funeral services, during which far-flung friends and relatives of the deceased could chat online as they viewed the ceremony in real time. He sees Forever Enterprises as an explicitly literary as well as a mortuary venture. "If you log on to our Web site," Cassity said, "you'll see the great American novel being written every day. Only I don't have to write it."

The Hollywood Forever biographies recorded thus far are hardly ready to vie with Moby-Dick. Nevertheless, the myriad tales of the cemetery's dead possess a cumulative resonance. As biographies of long-deceased movie stars and moguls are joined by those of Armenian, Latino, and Russian newcomers, the Forever archive reflects the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods, now multi-ethnic districts with only tenuous ties to the movie industry—neighborhoods that accommodate not only the gilded mansions of Tyrone Power and Clark Gable but also the unpretentious home of Maurice Mills.

Toward the end of the recording session for the Mills family, Ilania Hofler posed a question to Maurice's daughter Alara. "If he were here for one brief moment," Hofler asked, "what message would he want to pass on to you?"

"That he's on the other side pulling all the strings for me," Alara answered, smiling through her sobs. "And not to worry about anything and keep smiling, because he's my angel now."

Hofler switched off her digital recorder. "Finished," Maurice's Hollywood Forever biographer declared. "That was beautiful."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/03/the-hollywood-forever-way-of-death/302139/