NEW YORK – They turn everyday people into stars and stars into everyday people.
They are video memorials about the people, famous and not-so-famous, buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the heart of Tinseltown.
The cemetery has been producing the documentary-style biographies for three years, allowing those who visit the graves more than just a headstone.
"It brings closure at least for a moment, when you can reconnect with a person you knew as a living, breathing being," said Paul Krekorian, whose father-in-law is buried at the cemetery.
Some of the biographies are as simple as a picture accompanied by text. Others include interviews with family and friends, home movies, e-mails, letters and answering machine messages. All can be accessed at kiosks on the grounds, or at www.forevernetwork.com.
"This is a marriage of the past and the future," said Jay Boileau, vice president of technology at Forever Enterprises, the company that owns the cemetery. "This is bringing technology to an ancient tradition of memorialization."
Hollywood Forever is known for the movie greats who have been lain to rest there — Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr., Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille, to name a few. All four have bios in the online files.
The cemetery and funeral home have also gotten attention recently for their revival. Before 1998, when owner Tyler Cassity bought the property, the graveyard had fallen into bankruptcy and disrepair.
But Cassity pumped new life into the death-care industry by providing services his competitors didn't, such as post-funeral counseling and discount memorial services. Though others in the business were resistant to the documentary idea at first, several companies like plan4ever and HeavenlyDoor.com now do online video tributes too.
This past year, Hollywood Forever made a stunning $5.2 million, up from $1.4 million in revenue in 1998.
The cemetery produces about 1,000 videos a year. Prices range according to their complexity. An "entry-level package" with a photo and text is free. The most expensive is the $4,500 "platinum package," complete with more than 100 pictures, audio descriptions and an hour of video.
Cemetery counselor and biographer Ilania Hofler, who helps families put the high-tech scrapbooks together, said the process is often therapeutic.
"It's very cathartic to them," she said. "Tears are shed when they tell the stories, but they're told with love."
But some death-care experts worry that the memorials are a way to get people in mourning to spend money at a time when they're not thinking clearly.
"Some people might want and need to have that closure, but mostly I think it's a sales gimmick." said Darryl Roberts, author of Profits of Death, a book about the industry's exploitation.
Those at Forever Enterprises say they don't push anyone to create the biographies, although they admit the concept sometimes meets with resistance — until families see the results.
Bringing Them Back
Krekorian, whose wife Tamar lost her father, Levon Karamanoukian, in 1999, said he witnessed the making of the memorial.
"I was a little skeptical at first," he said, speaking for the family. "But it actually contributed a lot to the healing. It kind of brought him back for a little bit of time and let them experience the living person."
The tributes not only bring the lives of ordinary people to light, but can also downplay celebrities' stardom, making the rich and famous more human.
Bill Obrock, a vice president at Forever Enterprises, remembers one instance in which the widow of a big star buried at the cemetery, whom he declined to name, was against the idea at first.
"She didn't want to do that because he'd had Hollywood all his life," Obrock said. But by using candid family shots instead of press photos, cemetery biographers celebrated the actor as a person, not a star — and his widow loved the result, according to Obrock.
"We want to bring a little of Hollywood to everybody," he said. "We treat our regular folks like movie stars and our movie stars like regular folks. This is the new way to leave a mark on the world."