Cemetarian Tyler Cassity Finds Beauty in the Boneyard


For Tyler Cassity, death is his business. As a cemetarian for the historic Hollywood Forever cemetery -- and other sites -- Cassity has redefined death and dying in Los Angeles. In this city, death seems to be a myth. Cemeteries are hidden behind ivy covered walls or under freeway overpasses; murders in the "wrong" part of town seldom land on the news; and the aging population Botoxes out any sign of the progression of time. But death is real, and Cassity seeks to bring the living and the dead together. Cassity took over the cemetery in 1998. Later, he began hosting Hollywood Forever's first film screenings, one of Los Angeles' most beloved summer activities. Films by Hitchcock, Antonioni, and Wes Anderson, would be shown alongside fan favorites like "Goonies," "Jaws," and "Repo Man." Then Cassity opened the cemetery up for special performances, featuring Bon Iver playing a sunrise show and Flaming Lips covering Dark Side of the Moon outside, or Hauschka and Patrick Wolf offering intimate stripped down sets in the on-site Masonic Lodge. Cassity sees the cemetery as a focal point of the community, a center for an otherwise centerless city.

Artbound spoke with Cassity about the art side of the funeral arts, unusual burial practices, and finding beauty in the boneyard.

How did you become part of the funeral arts?

It was all accidental. I was an English Literature major at Columbia in New York. But my brother had gotten into the funeral business. He had a program of showing video montages of the deceased at the funeral. Then I took over the video montage department. I'm not a licensed mortician, I'm a cemetarian. I don't go into the back room and drain the bodies and pump them back up. I have dressed, and cleaned and prepared bodies for burial up north [at his site] Fernwood.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.

Why did you decide to bring movies and performances into the Hollywood Forever space?

When I first started working at Hollywood Forever, it was having a lot of financial troubles and was threatened with being closed. I thought that we had this 62 acre garden right here in Hollywood, and it felt to me like a community space. From the very conception of my idea to bid on the place, part of that was utilizing the open spaces to bring the community into this garden. I feel like a cemetery can be a center in a way, because it is literally the shoulders you stand on.

Cinespia Screening
Cinespia Screening

There was a history of Hollywood memorials here [because of the famous inhabitants still in the soil there]. One was the Valentino memorial, which is held annually, since he died in the '20s. Then I would give them a budget and let them celebrate him. We also screened our first silent film on the side of his masoleum. During the day, we'd do the traditional memorial service then at night, we'd show the film with a live organist, who has since passed away. Then Cinespia approached us and said that they wanted a home for their film series. We also had this giant Masonic lodge, and once it was cleaned, we realized that we had this great space with excellent acoustics, so that's our concert hall. When people think of death, this is a place they know, and everyone is going to die, so we like to have the community in here before that happens.

Dia De Los Muertos | Photo: Colin Young-Wolff.
Dia De Los Muertos | Photo: Colin Young-Wolff.

What about the performative aspects of a funeral. It creates this narrative that tries to lead the audience from a feeling of grief to acceptance. Is it similar to directing to theater?

A funeral director is half traffic director and half emcee. In Jewish tradition and Bible belt traditions, the family has a final look at the deceased before the casket is closed permanently. It's psychological form of closure. In the Bible belt, Christian and Catholic traditions, there are two different performances and rituals where the deceased is center stage. First is the visitation, where people come to pay respects to the dead person and their families. The next stage is the funeral, for some open casket ceremonies, the deceased is made up to look alive, and the audience comes up to pay respects.

What about the layout of the cemetery? Is it park design or land art?

It depends. At Hollywood Forever it is an example of 20th century park design. It was based upon the landscape architecture of Central Park [designed by Frederick Law Olmsted]. This was designed in that tradition, it was supposed ot be an idyllic landscape and keep that nature to it. In the Jewish cemeteries here, we are allowed to be a little harsher, with monument after monument after monument. It's not about beauty. But for the others its about beauty and forgetting where you are. There's peacocks and swans, you're in another space.

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Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.

With all the individualized tombstones, a cemetery is a kind of sculpture garden too.

If you go to most other memorial parks you will be heavily restricted, it's like a suburban cul-de-sac where there are only three different models for the houses. Here there's 99,000 models and more coming. That's the fun part. Some people get offended by that. They don't want to see a guy in a white body suit engraved into granite. But I like that, a lot of the monuments here make an impact. And that's what arts all about. You remember them, even if you're not grieving for them. A lot of these pieces I have a relationship to.

Which ones in particular?

Hidden in the older section of the cemetery there is an art installation, which was there before we owned the cemetery, where an artist bought a plot - a very discrete one, much in line with the other ones - but the monument itself is a standing large piece of slate. Then there is a metal box, and inside is an eraser and chalk. I often go there and write things that I want to let go of, and erase it.


Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Jose Zakany.

How has the act of death and remembering changed in 21st century Los Angeles?

Death, as always, reflects the Life of 21st Century Los Angeles. In one day at Hollywood Forever, Thai Buddhist monks chant during as as the crematory is activated, Armenian Orthodox priests swing chains of frankincense thuribles over a fresh grave, the faces of deceased Russians are etched onto Indian black granite chip by chip, Latino protestants are placed in multi-storied mausolea awaiting the Resurrection, busts of TV stars are joined with their cremated remains in glass fronted niches; and the others - those mostly educated upper income "Anglos" - are so often cremated without a service, scattered at sea without a witness, or placed on a shelf in the next of kins closet indefinitely.


Dia De Los Muertos | Photo:Colin Young-Wolff.
Dia De Los Muertos | Photo:Colin Young-Wolff.

What are some more unique burials you've witnessed?

A son who paid the cemetery staff (for years before my tenure and then some time after) for the opening and closing of his mother's mausoleum crypt so that he could reapply her make up and freshen her clothing. I knew of this anecdotally until three young funeral assistants were traumatized when they happened upon the scene. Subsequently, I stopped the practice. Though I have forbid on state statute grounds the fulfillment of his final wishes that he and his already deceased mother be cremated and commingled upon his death - I am neither sure I will outlive him nor that he will not some how once again succeed in compromising my staff in his determination.

The Roma - or the gypsies as others call them - they often require 36 to 72 hour services involving 24 hour encampment, a pit for the roasting of full bodied pigs on spits. As part of my service to this community, one of the top five Roma families in Los Angeles offered their beautiful teen daughter as my bride after I threw the matriarch's tarot cards.

I find it remarkable that when we have "Hollywood" burials - ones that require extra security and superfluous managers - the celebrated so often remove their shoes to feel their bare feet against the lawn. I worry about the messes the swans may have made - and then realize it's all natural.

How do you envision funerals of the future?

In terms of burial - my partners and I have created a vision of the post cremation funeral and burial at our Golden Gate site. San Francisco statistics reflect advanced Northern European trends more than the U.S. In Europe, after cremation becomes dominant - the first subsequent variation to occur was - beautifully to me - a cyclical return:
Return me to the soil, making it sacred, and grow an oak tree or foster a meadow of native grasses or a habitat for butterflies - use my burial to sanctify and endow a natural and eternal space.

Will the digital space supersede cemeteries as the primary means of remembrance?

The digital space will supersede current responses to death in corresponding and reflective ways to the way digital space is currently insinuating itself into all aspects of our existence. At our prototype site at the Golden Gate, you can Google GPS your loved one - whether you are looking for them in the forest or from across a continent.

So, what are you going to do when you die?

I have many plans for my own remains and will continue to make more.
Currently, I am working on my potential burial place at Hollywood Forever. Over the next two years, we will reshape the lakes and activate our latent historic wells. I have one of three new islands in mind.


Watch as Tyler Cassity joins T. Kelly Mason, and George Baker in a discussion of funerary objects and practices in early 21st-century Los Angeles and the relationship of these to private and collective ideas of memory, space, and the expression of desire.
May 24, Hammer Museum.


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Top Image: Tyler Cassity.


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