Death & the Salesman Irreverence and death don't mix. Unless you're the Cassity brothers, who bring a show-biz sensibility to the staid funeral business.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – It's a bright clear winter morning in Los Angeles. A windstorm blew in the night before, scattering huge palm fronds across the green expanse of Hollywood Forever cemetery, but grounds crews are already piling them into neat stacks by the grave of Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, whose headstone reads simply THAT'S ALL FOLKS. The real action, though, is inside the cemetery's main office building, a converted Masonic temple dating to the 1920s. In a small screening room off the main lobby, funeral arranger Eliza Sultan stabs at a touchscreen. "I want to show you the Schaffers," she says. Lester and Dorothy Schaffer are a couple in their 80s who have made pre-need cremation arrangements with Forever Network. Onscreen, however, in a slickly produced audiovisual presentation that has still photos, a musical score, and interviews, they are ageless and immortal.
The cursor scrolls across Lester at 2 ("I was a cute little devil"), lingers on Dorothy at 18 wearing her mother's wedding dress, and lands on a videoclip of the couple reminiscing in 1995. "Every time we had a date, it rained," Lester says. "I used to call her my 'Raindrop.' " Dorothy smiles. "So sweet," Sultan murmurs.
The Schaffers and other customers of the ongoing audio-video biographies known as Lifestories are in a real sense the hope of the future for Forever Network, which is owned and run by Tyler and Brent Cassity. The brothers are out to recast the economics underlying the $15 billion death industry by forging long-term relationships with clients instead of seeing them (and their money) only at the time of burial. They are turning Hollywood Forever cemetery--whose permanent residents include Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr.--into a hip, must-see destination for tourists and locals alike, while transforming all their properties into high-tech showplaces for their Lifestories.
Lifestories is the crux of the plan for a continual--and continually profitable--relationship with clients. Indeed, the brothers' ambitions stretch beyond death care and reach for a place where memory and technology combine. They want to be the digital custodians of their clients' narratives, voices, and images, and they want to do it on a grand scale. "I want us to become something like the J. Crew catalog," Brent says--the mass-marketers of human memory.
So far the mix of irreverence and death is working, as Forever racked up $3.1 million in profits, on revenues of $18.9 million, in 2003. Tyler, 34, and his brother Brent, 37, are president and CEO, respectively, of Forever Enterprises, a private holding company based in Clayton, Mo., whose interests include insurance as well as the cemeteries and funeral homes that make up Forever Network. The firm's strong financials are surprising in an industry that's "essentially flat," according to Ron Hast, publisher of the trade magazines Mortuary Management and Funeral Monitor. "There's no growth to it." Indeed, deaths have plateaued around 2.3 million a year for the past decade, and customers have increasingly turned away from interment, which typically costs more than $5,000, to cremation (about $1,000). Most of the industry's big players such as Alderwoods Group, Service Corp. International, and Stewart Enterprises are still trying to rebound from a precipitous late-1990s slump. What's different about Forever is largely a matter of attitude. And it starts right at the top.
Tyler Cassity is nobody's idea of a typical funeral director. A thin, soft-spoken, movie-star-handsome former English-lit major, he can comfortably talk about cremation as a "nihilistic response to the 20th-century funeral tradition in America." In his suite overlooking Hollywood Forever's main gate on Santa Monica Boulevard, a stone's throw from Paramount Studios, is the bookshelf where Anya Foos-Graber's Deathing shares space with Fairbanks Jr.'s The Salad Days and Flannery O'Connor's collected letters. His office also boasts a giant allegorical oil painting of the flames of hell. Cassity admits it is an attention grabber. "It used to be in the lobby," he says cheerfully. "It was the first thing you saw when you walked in. I like that."
Funeral directors are salesmen in part--"The funeral seller, like any other merchant, is preoccupied with price, profit, selling techniques," Jessica Mitford wrote in her 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death--and so perhaps the blue-sky optimism and showmanship in the brothers' vision of the future shouldn't be rare or surprising. But they are, and so is the abundance of passion and smarts in Brent and Tyler. Whether they can remake the industry that spawned them is very much an open question. If death teaches anything, though, it teaches about inexorability. The Cassitys have learned their industry's lessons, and they are patient.
The place was a shambles. Roads were a rumor. The mausoleums were collapsing. The lakes had overflowed their banks in that year's El Niño winter. But in January 1998 when the brothers stopped in to have a look at the down-at-the-heels Los Angeles cemetery called Hollywood Memorial, Tyler fell in love. "It was a derelict, creepy, romantic place," he recalls. Before anybody really knew what was happening, he had plunked down $375,000 to buy the 62-acre property out of bankruptcy. He knew that Hollywood Memorial was a bargain, even though it would take more than $2 million in first-year capital improvements just to get the property's "skeleton back up." His family agreed to fund half the deal if he could find outside backers to cover the rest, and gave him a month to do it. It took him two weeks to find a group of Chilean investors who wanted in. The cemetery reopened as Hollywood Forever in April 1998. The hope was that it would again become a going concern, and something else: a testing ground for the brothers' ideas about high-tech memorialization.
The roots of the idea lay in an old snippet of audiotape. Brent Cassity recalls that his brother was always taping relatives without their knowledge. One day in the late '80s Tyler brought his older brother an audiocassette. He'd been recording some music when he discovered about 45 seconds of a long-forgotten conversation he'd taped between his mother and grandmother, who had died three years before. The brothers were rapt. "It was amazing to us that in a few years you could lose the memory of the inflections in someone's voice," Brent says.
Along with Brent, Tyler had entered the cemetery business in 1989. They acquired and later sold off ten struggling funeral homes and three cemeteries in the Midwest, looking less for success as funeral directors than for a way to promote their ideas for Lifestories. What Tyler found in the ruins of Hollywood Memorial seemed like nothing less than a sign. "The graves of the great founders and early stars of film had been forgotten and neglected because their bodies meant nothing," he says. "It was their movies that meant everything."
Inspired, he quickly set about producing the kind of razzle-dazzle that the funeral business had never seen. Over the past few years the property has thrown open its gates to host film series, walking tours, a musical tribute to bandleader Woody Herman featuring (surviving) members of his Thundering Herd, a holiday presentation of an experimental theater production called Marley's Ghost, and celebrations for the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican remembrance day that's also widely observed in Southern California. Most events are free; all are golden opportunities to spread the Forever Network brand. "Probably anyone you'd talk to in our business would say we've stepped over the line," Tyler says. He does not appear to be plagued with remorse as he makes that observation.
In fact, the stunts worked well, sweeping aside any Luddite objections. While Brent stayed home in St. Louis, Tyler became Hollywood's favorite undertaker--the "Cemetery Kid," according to a cover story in the weekly New Times Los Angeles--and a consultant to HBO's hit series Six Feet Under. The events and the press helped turn Hollywood Forever around: Customers who had been unable to purchase plots during the years of the property's insolvency started to come back. The cemetery took in $307,000 in its last year under old management, a little more than $1 million in 1998, and $8 million in 2003, accounting for about 42% of Forever Network's revenues.
The marquee location in the heart of Los Angeles did more to promote digital memorialization among early adopters than any property in the heartland ever could. And every Angeleno who came to the park for an event was a potential customer for Forever Networks' video memorial packages, ranging from the $400 Forever Chapter (as many as ten photos and three minutes of video) to the $4,200 Platinum Level (11 chapters, plus add-ins including the services of Forever's professional videographers and editors). "We think we're creating a different way for people to use the cemetery," Brent says. "Instead of just going to the cemetery and saying to your daughter, 'Well, here's your grandfather--I really wish you could have met him,' you can actually introduce her to him."
Heartened by the success of Hollywood Forever, the brothers began to acquire other properties, and by the end of 2003 they operated six cemetery/funeral homes in three states--each one branded with the Forever name, and offering Lifestories front and center.
"We're evolving," Brent says. "The cemetery segment is one segment. We got into that because that's where people best understood what we're doing. I feel like now we need to spread the brand more." The company is, at the cost of some internal debate, in the process of separating the Lifestories brand from death care; a loosely constituted division called Lifestories on Campus is overseeing an effort to bring the concept to schools, with sales of video yearbooks and individual student bios made so far to 12 private schools in the St. Louis area. A separate project to document the college memories of alumni got underway at the University of Missouri late last year. In a third project, reminiscences of Missouri military veterans are being assembled on video on behalf of the state for use on Veterans Day in veterans' centers and state public schools.
The company's cemetery business is growing as well. At Hollywood Forever, there are plans to dramatically expand the unfinished Abbey of the Psalms mausoleum; permission was secured late last year to go ahead with the first phase of a new crypt complex holding 18,000 spots. And this spring Forever Network will open its first "green" cemetery in Marin County, Calif., offering ecologically sensitive interment--no embalming fluids, no non-biodegradable burial containers, and no headstones--in a parklike setting.
Even as it expands, though, it would be an exaggeration to say that Forever Network is shaking the death-care industry by the neck. A handful of analysts contacted for this story were unfamiliar with the company. Even an admirer, Mortuary Management publisher Ron Hast, himself a funeral director for more than 40 years, says, "I don't see Lifestories as making a major change in the way the American people handle death." So far, the Cassitys have produced only 11,500 Lifestories video tributes. (All are accessible through user-friendly computer touchscreens at any of the six Forever properties and to anyone with an Internet connection at forevernetwork.com, where they draw more than 10,000 visits a week.)
And the Lifestories concept remains overwhelmingly death-based. Brent estimates that about 80% of Forever Network's funeral clients avail themselves of one Lifestories product or another; Lifestories sales accounted for a little more than 10% of the company's revenues in 2003 and 2002, and about 20% of overall profits. The video tributes are a relatively high-margin product, on the order of 40%, helping to replace some of the margin lost when the trend toward cremation obviated much of the need for profitable items such as caskets. The bottom line has also benefited from the Cassitys' willingness to market and promote themselves aggressively in an industry that has traditionally been publicity-shy. Lifestories itself serves as both a revenue stream and a sales tool.
Still, Tyler acknowledges, "it's not as if all of us would be here if we relied upon that product to feed us. We're still selling plots. That's a high margin. We still have a large margin on big pieces of stone." He smiles and adds, "All the things that are obsolete."
That struggle--between what's obsolete and what's still imagined, between the world of death and the library of lives--seems likely to occupy the company for some time to come. A decade from now, says Brent, "I'd hope we're not defined by death care. I think how we get perceived in the future is going to be defined by how successful we are in branding Lifestories as about memory, not death." Tyler is a little less sure about that. "Whatever happens in the schools, or in nursing homes, or at weddings, or any of those places where we could conceivably send a person to collect your memories, there has to be an institution in society to store those memories. That's what we see a cemetery as: a place of remembrance." There's the final irony, for the Cassitys, of making it big in death care: The business they never really wanted to get into has them in its grip, and like death itself, shows no signs of letting them go.