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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Author: Bill Meagher
February, 2010 Issue


NorthBay biz takes a look at the trials and tribulations of Forever Fernwood, a Marin County cemetery specializing in green burial practices.

 
Above Tam Valley, not far from Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley, sits Forever Fernwood, the former Dauphine Fernwood Cemetery, which has entered its own afterlife as a fashionably green burial facility. As a hawk glides low over the mostly virgin soil, hunting a bit of dinner on a hillside known as Upper Meadow, where the plots run $6,600 each, it’s almost possible to forget that, not too far away, it’s rush hour on Highway 101. Though there’s a section of the cemetery that caters to traditional burial and cremation, it’s the areas of the 32-acre property that cater to folks looking to go into that good night in a simple pine box or even a shroud that’s captured the imagination of the national media including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Fortune, the New York Times and “Nightline.”
 
Their fascination is easy to understand. The Cassity brothers, Tyler and Brent, are the force behind the family business, Forever Enterprises. But more important, they’re responsible for growing the Forever brand. It includes a chain of cemeteries, a manufactured casket and import business, mortuaries and a division that focuses on producing digital remembrances of their customers. The siblings envision an empire where cemeteries celebrate the lives of those buried or interred via video available at kiosks or even graveside. They see a time where cemeteries become community gathering places instead of somber centers filled with tears and gravestones. It’s the brothers—and, to some extent, their mother, Rhonda—who have made the family funeral famous and, to an extent, the funeral infamous, along with dear old dad, James Cassity. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Besides Fernwood, the Prius of burial grounds, the brand extends to Los Angeles, where the pair bought the down-at-the-heels Hollywood Memorial Park for the bargain price of $375,000. As they say in the City of Angels, the place needed some work done. After $2 million worth of tucks and lifts, it’s been transformed into an A-list cemetery where folks are literally dying to get in (old joke, couldn’t resist). The property, which holds the bones of Rudolph Valentino, Jane Mansfield and Douglas Fairbanks, sits next door to Paramount Studios, and these days, movies are shown outside on a mausoleum wall while people picnic during the show at $10 a head. The cemetery rehab became the subject of a documentary by HBO titled “The Young and the Dead.” HBO became so enamored with Tyler Cassity that he was later hired as a consultant on the hit series “Six Feet Under.”

Crime and punishment?

But HBO and the mainstream media have missed the boat on a dark part of the Cassity family tale, a cross between a B-grade flick and a repeat episode of “Law and Order.” A Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act civil suit filed in federal court last year alleges the Cassity family, along with companies and entities it controls, engineered a $600 million fraud that could ultimately affect 150,000 people across 47 states.

According to the lawsuit, as well as a criminal indictment of a former executive, two different life insurance companies owned or controlled by the Cassity family collapsed in 2008, after a decade of alleged fraud. Last August, the president of the companies, Randall Sutton, was arrested by the FBI after being indicted on fraud and money laundering charges. Sutton, who pled not guilty at his arraignment, faces 170 years in the slammer along with a $2.5 million fine if he’s convicted. The civil lawsuit names Tyler and Brent Cassity along with their parents James and Rhonda and 41 other people and entities including RST Trust II, the legal entity that controls the family’s complicated web of businesses, as defendants. The 137-page lawsuit was filed in Missouri under the RICO Act, a 1970 set of federal laws designed to address ongoing criminal acts perpetrated by the Mafia. The laws are now used on a fairly regular basis to battle ongoing alleged organized criminal efforts.

The lawsuit details the alleged offenses this way: James Douglas Cassity, the patriarch of the Cassity clan, ran a Missouri-based company called National Prearranged Services Inc. (NPS) in 1979. The company sold prepaid funeral services on a national basis. Consumers would buy a specific level of funeral product and, when they passed, the cemetery would be paid by NPS for its services. In turn, NPS bought life insurance policies from Memorial Service Life Insurance Company and Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Company to pay for the eventual funeral service. This was a neat trick, since both Memorial and Lincoln were owned or operated by an entity controlled by the Cassity clan, thus keeping all the money in the family.

But beginning in 1998, funds were allegedly diverted from the policies by NPS. In some cases, fully paid policies were altered by the company so it looked as if only partial payment had been made—and the company pocketed the difference. In other cases, the customer’s name or that of the funeral home was altered and NPS was substituted instead. Some policies were used as collateral, backing $65 million in loans, or converted from whole life polices to renewable policies, scoring the family $40 million. Promissory notes allegedly yielded another $50 million. Finally, money from the scheme was allegedly used to purchase Professional Liability Company of America, another company connected to RST Trust II.

What else were the alleged diverted funds used for? According to the lawsuit, the Cassity family used some of the proceeds to pay off their credit cards. In the case of Doug Cassity, that meant siphoning off $3.3 million to retire his debt. Tyler proved no slouch when it came to the plastic, as it allegedly required $1.1 million to clear the accounts. Brother Brent turned out to be the thrifty one with just $542,000.

The civil action may wind up being just one legal parry against the Cassity family. Officials from Ohio, Kansas, Missouri and Texas are looking into the stable of companies and the actions behind the millions in alleged fraud. The Feds are unlikely to sit on the sidelines as the FBI, IRS and U.S. Postal Inspectors are already familiar with the legal challenges springing from the sale of the prepaid funeral services and subsequent collapse of Texas life insurance companies.

The Cassity brothers have done their best to separate out the operations of Forever Fernwood in Mill Valley and Forever Hollywood from the scandal. Last year, Forever Fernwood was scheduled to host a Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce mixer just as the family legal woes began making the papers. At the time, Chamber CEO Kathy Severson told the Marin Independent Journal, “When this issue came up, we just felt because our mixers are social networking opportunities, it was going to detract. We just felt it would be easier to not open this up as an opportunity for anything other than a social networking event.”

Tortured quote aside, it’s uncertain whether Severson and company thought Johnny Law might show up mid-mixer, looking to serve subpoenas and slap silver on the Cassitys while they dished canapés and punch to Chamber members. Perhaps Severson was looking to protect Fernwood employees from inelegant questions regarding fraud or the Big House. That said, any social networking the Chamber rolled out in a place where they hawk pine boxes and San Francisco Giants funeral urns is going to be a unique little get-together anyway. Whatever the ultimate reason, the event was cancelled.

At the time, Jack Spooner, the long-time attorney for the Cassity family, was handling media chores, since nobody with the last name Cassity wanted to chat with the press. Spooner told the IJ that the legal woes arising from the civil suit were unlikely to impact Fernwood: “Ownership and management of the cemetery property is a unique animal.”

Kathy Curry, who runs Fernwood now, says the lawsuit hasn’t caused any problems for the Mill Valley cemetery.

As they say in Hollywood, here’s the back-story

The cemetery now known as Forever Fernwood has been in business in one way or another since 1891. At one time, it was known as Sausalito Cemetery, and one section of the grounds looks like any standard graveyard, with markers and crypts. But it was the property that stood silent and unmarked that captured the imagination of Tyler Cassity. The second son of James and Rhonda Cassity, Tyler was already a cemetery celebrity via his championing of “Life Stories,” a division of the family business that sought to make videos of the departed a standard part of the industry. Always fascinated by the connection between film and memories, Tyler and his brother Brent started a business where clients could record a memory prior to their demise, and the edited video would be available on cemetery kiosks for all visitors as well as on the cemetery’s website. The business hasn’t taken off as they hoped but is still available at company cemeteries, including Fernwood, according to Curry.

Originally, Fernwood was going to go natural via a business partnership that included Dr. Billy Campbell and Joe Sehee. Campbell is generally regarded as the leading advocate of natural burial in the United States. He operates the 37-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the nation’s first green cemetery. Sehee is a former journalist and an affordable housing advocate. He’s also a Jesuit lay minister and the PR rep for Tyler Cassity. He’s currently the executive director of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainability in the death care industry.

But the deal between Cassity, Campbell and Sehee fell apart, according to a lengthy article in The New Yorker, after Campbell walked away when Cassity and Fernwood failed to put a permanent conservation easement deal together with the Trust for Public Land. The easement would have protected the land from any future development and possibly dictated ecological restoration. The fascinating piece by Tad Friend, which first appeared in August 2005, also said that personality problems between the partners couldn’t be worked out. Campbell was also reportedly upset about the use of backhoes to dig graves as well as the fact that some corpses were still being prepared using formaldehyde.

So the Cassitys moved along with Fernwood themselves, buying the property for $450,000 and spending another $1.5 million fixing it up.

The sales pitch

In December, I took a tour of the grounds myself as a consumer, accompanied by Raymond Soudah, the cemetery sales manager. Dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, Soudah asks me a few questions about how I discovered Fernwood and why I’m interested in the green option. Soudah has been in the death care business for nine years, since he was 16 years old. We sit down in an area adjacent to the gathering room in a very interesting building. The structure houses the Fernwood offices as well as a room displaying caskets. The building is long and narrow, accented by tall stone arches. As much as anything, its shape (ironically) suggests a casket.

After Soudah and I talk for a couple minutes, he shows me the natural burial choices as well as a diagram of the cemetery and the different areas available for my final journey. Soudah explains that formaldehyde isn’t used to preserve bodies in the green portion of the cemetery, and that burial doesn’t require a vault, a cement reinforcement of the grave into which the casket is placed. All graves are hand dug, which requires more than a bit of labor. And the staff is eliminating the non-native trees from the property. A GPS is used to find gravesites by relatives or friends wishing to pay their respects.

According to the Fernwood Casket and Merchandise list, the green options for burial include a simple pine box at $1,195, wicker containers at $795 a throw, a plywood version at $295, and even a cardboard option for just $95. The caskets are all made and imported by Triad, a company the Cassitys own. One small detail that detracts a bit from the Mother Earth angle is that Triad is located in China, and thus Fernwood must bring the caskets from way over there by ship—a carbon footprint that needs the help of a good ecological podiatrist.

Burial costs by themselves run from a low of $2,200 for a cremation space to $66,000 for a burial in Family Grove, but that second number is deceiving. For that price, you get two full body spaces, six cremation spaces, one boulder to mark the site, and an option to buy four more cremation spaces. And isn’t life (and, in this case, death) all about the options? On a per-body basis, that’s only $7,165 each.

Soudah and I slip into an earth-friendly Prius and drive up the hill to walk some of the property. Soudah is low key as he describes the advantages of such areas as Ancestral Forest, Lower Meadows and Upper Meadows. From the trail between different meadows, views of Tam Valley, Mount Tam and portions of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area are apparent.

Soudah isn’t hard selling. Rather, he simply supplies information for me—though at one point, he does mention Fernwood is having a sale of a sort. “You can get a two-for-one the rest of this month,” he says, talking about how I could be buried in a deeper plot and then my wife could be buried on top of me for the price of a single plot. I’m tempted to ask if he knows something I don’t regarding my departure from this mortal coil, though the prospect of entering the afterlife with my wife on top of me puts a smile on my face. Soudah then gives me a conspiratorial grin and confesses, “They had the same deal last month, so…” his voice trails off.

We continue the tour in the Prius through the traditional section, marked by gravestones and flowers atop graves. Soudah mentions Fernwood is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a departure from many traditional cemeteries but in keeping with the Cassity operational philosophy of making their properties something beyond a burial ground.

A Hollywood comeback

The remade Forever Hollywood is a good example of what the family would like to see happen with its properties. During the summer, the cemetery hosts a film series on the weekend, run by a nonprofit group called Cinespia. On Saturday and Sunday nights, the cemetery is open as films ranging from classics to cult favorites are projected onto the tomb where Rudy Valentino does the Big Sleep. Parking is $5 and donations are $10 a head. Folks picnic sporting baskets and takeout along with a cheeky white that tastes fine in plastic. Blankets and pillows are fine, but tall chairs and dogs are verboten. DJs spin music before and after the shows.

While the movie nights may not add huge bucks to the bottom line, the exposure for the once-struggling cemetery is priceless. The year the Cassity family bought it, it booked $16,000 in revenue, according to The New Yorker. Demonstrating a feel for the bottom line and sponsorship, Brent sold off sponsorship of a street within the graveyard for $30,000. A story on ABC’s “Nightline” said the Hollywood landmark now throws off $10 million a year in revenue. According to Hoover’s, a company that tracks business numbers on privately held companies in the United States, Forever Enterprises had an estimated $71.6 million in revenue for 2008, the last year in which numbers were available.

A questionable business pedigree

James Cassity started off as a lawyer and actually took part ownership in NPS from a client who owed him money. Eventually, he bought the whole company. And Cassity was destined for a life beyond practicing law. In the 1980s, he led an investment club that ran afoul of the Feds. He pled guilty to tax fraud and conspiracy and did six months in a Federal blue roof inn. He was also disbarred. Ironically, the death of his legal career set him free to pursue the death care business full time. He built the business from the ground up, hiring staff to go door-to-door to sign people up for prepaid funerals. Later, he hired telemarketers to peddle the future funerals. Son Brent found a way to improve on the hard sell, hiring the “NPS Girls” to sell the service directly to funeral homes. The “Girls” were usually young, attractive...and successful at ringing up sales.

In the 1990s, the family began buying up cemeteries and funeral homes and building the array of corporate vehicles that would dazzle state and federal officials years later. But through it all, nobody could find James Cassity’s name on anything. He was a very wealthy man, but a pauper on paper.

Rhonda and James bought a house in Nantucket for $2.95 million in 2005. Rhonda remodeled the place, using a construction company she owns, and sold it a little more than a year later for $16 million to the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt. But the house was in her name, not James’.

Today, Tyler is president of Forever Enterprises, while Brent is CEO. James is officially retired and living in Florida.

Brent is content to stay in the background, while Tyler is the more public face of the company. A graduate of Columbia University with an English degree, Tyler’s first love has always been writing. But over the years, he found his way into the family business and his creativity has helped build the Forever brand and push the green cemetery idea.

In truth, green burial is a European idea, and more than 140 green burial facilities exist on the other side of the sink. In the United States, there are less than 15 natural cemeteries and thus far, Fernwood is the only one in California.

That Fernwood is located in Marin is only natural, no pun intended. Cremation is very popular in the county, with more than 80 percent of residents planning on going that route when their time comes, so a green graveyard is a pretty good fit.

How the Cassity family comes out of this legal food fight is anybody’s guess. NorthBay biz contacted Cassity mouthpiece Jack Spooner to get an update on the legal battle, but he said the interests of the “California properties” were being looked after by a different attorney. After a few minutes of searching for a name and number, he advises us to call Hollywood Forever and “ask for Yogu, he’ll know the name of the guy.”

“The guy” turned out to be Darren Enestein, of Enestein & Saltzman. Enestein represents Hollywood Forever and Tyler Cassity, and his firm filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit because it fails to specifically say how his client participated in any of the alleged acts. “Tyler is very proud of the work he’s done in Hollywood and at Fernwood, and he doesn’t have anything to do with the lawsuit,” Enestein says.

Still, Cassity is the president of Forever Enterprises, and it will require more than his lawyer saying he wasn’t a part of the fraud to clear him. The law, after all, is a little like death. It can be a mysterious beast.

As Raymond Chandler wrote in The Big Sleep, “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

As Jim Morrison of The Doors once said, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” The Cassitys are counting on it. They’d even like to do right by Mom Earth, as long as they can make some green being green.


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