The New Yorker has published another lengthy feature story -- this time about an entrepreneurial "cemeterian" in California named Tyler Cassity -- that's available only in print (the Aug. 29 issue). Tad Friend, author of the 12-page article, discusses it in this online Q&A. Cassity is a champion of green burials, which favor shrouds or boxes over airtight coffins, and natural decay over embalming. Death and mourning customs raise universal questions, and this article touches on an amazing number of them.
First come some of the more colorful alternatives to traditional funerals:
It appears that his deeper project, his emerging life's work, is to codify a new religion of departure -- one that encompasses the struggle between the wish to become a meadow and the belief that nothing, not even a meadow, matters to the dead. Cassity has approved Wiccan and Goth funerals and a pre-need request for a monument in the shape of a giant prehistoric rat, and he acceded to the wishes of a man who asked, when his time came, to be rolled up in a shroud as if he were a joint.
Then comes a brief discussion between Cassity and Richard Jongordon, another pioneer of alternative burial, which mentions the religious precedent for green burials:
The cost of the average American funeral and burial can exceed ten thousand dollars, but Jongordon said that he planned to charge only about fifteen hundred dollars for a "simple burial and wooden box."
"Or a shroud? The way the Jews do it?" Cassity suggested.
"No shroud; a box," Jongordon said. "It's an emotional factor. The box looks better going in."
Cassity's radical improvements at a cemetery he renamed Hollywood Forever led him to another Hollywood connection -- namely influence on the cable series Six Feet Under:
Occasionally, the funerals at Hollywood Forever are studio productions, staged for the HBO funeral-home drama, "Six Feet Under." Cassity is a consultant for the show, and has provided it with story lines from his own experience, from Buddhist funerals to blood spewing from the embalming-room drains. When Cassity told the show's writers about his new cemetery in Marin, they decided that when the main character, Nate, died, at the end of this, the final season, he would receive a green burial. "Tyler has affected the tone of the show, more than anything else," Alan Ball, the creator of "Six Feet Under," said. "There's this amalgamation of sadness and loss and regret, the hopefulness on top of that, his soulfulness, his soft voice. Everybody in the writers' room has a huge crush on him: men, women, gay, straight -- after he comes in we all go, 'Mmm!'"
Which opens the theme of how Tyler's parents, identified as born-again Baptists, changed their worldview when they came to terms with his homosexuality:
In high school, Tyler was an All Division defensive end with no great interest in football or the girls who came with it. At sixteen, tormented by a forbidden crush on his best friend, he tried to kill himself by swallowing all sixty pills in the family medicine cabinet. When he was a freshman at Columbia University, he came out. His mother was devastated; his father was bewildered. "I'm a farm boy from southwest Missouri, and I had looked at gayness as a choice, because that was what my religion said," Doug Cassity told me. He immersed himself in medical and psychological studies, "and it became obvious that it wasn't a religious or moral issue."
"It had a big effect on my family," Tyler said quietly. "My parents changed from being Baptist to being spiritual."
To make this story the perfect storm of culture clashes, consumer-level anti-evolution views pop up at a funeral. Friend describes being invited to the service by Billy Campbell, a physician who has pioneered green burials at Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina:
One Sunday in April, Campbell invited me to visit: "We've got a couple people who are hot right now" -- close to death -- "so you might get to see a burial." The following afternoon, there was a service at Ramsey Creek for Anna Palmer, a seventy-eight-year-old former nurse. Palmer, who was dressed in a white sun hat and white gloves and tucked up with a patchwork quilt, lay in a cardboard box beside her freshly dug grave at the edge of a clearing.
A Baptist minister, David Blizzard, addressed the three dozen mourners. He looked around uncertainly, clasping a small Bible, and widened his stance. "This is kind of a unique funeral," he began, "the first one I've had this way, out here in beautiful creation. It reminds us that where there is a creation, there is a creator. Thank God I didn't descend from no monkey." There were murmurs of "Amen," and Campbell's expression became studiously neutral.
Both the print story and the online Q&A mention Cassity's breathtaking plans for his own final resting place. Here's how Friend describes it in the Q&A:
He would like to be memorialized at Hollywood Forever with a circular monument of Carrara marble set in the ornamental lake, atop which will be a statue of a naked Narcissus on all fours, gazing at his reflection. Which is weird, because that was also my plan.
Friend offers an engaging portrait of a young man who could transform the funeral business, especially as more Baby Boomers face their mortality.
About the art: Town cemetery, Mountain Park, Canada, by Johnnie Bachusky.