Adventures at Forest Lawn Cemetery

There’s something about Los Angeles and cemeteries. They go together like chocolate and peanut butter or arsenic and old lace. The climate is perfect for strolling through them almost year round and the creamy orange sunglow and perpetual lull of distant traffic create the kind of eternal Sunday afternoon melancholy feeling you want in a good cemetery experience. L.A. cemeteries also have, of course, a fantastic variety of famous graves to visit. Aside from our excellent wax museums I think these cemeteries provide the ideal environment in which to reflect on the life or alleged sexual fetishes of a particular star.

No cemetery here offers a mix of serenity and glamour quite like Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Although it has been making huge strides in cornering the local Armenian market over the last few years the cemetery is best known as being the final resting place of “Hollywood’s immortals” including but not limited to Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Peter Lorre, and Sofia Petrillo herself, Estelle Getty. The management of Hollywood Forever cannily exploits their magnificent grounds as a nightlife destination where, during the summer, you might be lucky enough to witness a screening of Kenneth Anger short films under the stars in a fucking cemetery.

A much larger cemetery than Hollywood Forever that boasts an almost inconceivable amount of famous graves is Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Forest Lawn owns and operates several cemeteries in Los Angeles County but the original park is in Glendale. The mastermind behind Forest Lawn wanted to create a cemetery scrubbed of anything that might signify its central purpose as a repository for corpses. The way to do this, he envisioned, was to fill its 300 acres with knockoffs of famous European churches and “inspirational” art.  It would seem that by all accounts his plan succeeded. Prior to the opening of Disneyland Forest Lawn Memorial Park was actually the most popular tourist attraction in all of Los Angeles.

I was intimidated by what I had heard about it from other local cemetery aficionados. Forest Lawn supposedly embodied the antiseptic cheerfulness of Disneyland and the Las Vegas ideal of fine art. This is, categorically, a weirdly unpleasant description for a graveyard but as off-putting as it sounded I was intrigued.  The graves of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Walt Disney, and Ernst Lubitsch are housed there and the staff was supposedly hostile to anyone curious to find them. I like a challenge so I paid it a visit.

Though many dead celebrities at Forest Lawn are deliberately almost impossible to find I did manage to locate several good ones in the Great Mausoleum. With a decent guidebook and a low profile one can find the pink marbled crypts of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, W.C. Fields, and one of the Andrew Sisters. The big attraction, though, is a gigantic stained glass “recreation” (they don’t like the word “copy”) of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the main hall. Take a seat and a curtain mechanically opens to unveil it while a canned recording, with dramatic sound effects, details the story of the Last Supper. If a visitor were to miss the beginning of the presentation they shouldn’t worry because the curtain will close and open again every 30 minutes whether there is anyone to witness its unveiling or not.

The Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn has a “patriotism” theme. A towering statue of George Washington stands in front while a few yards away there is an equally towering statue of an ancient Roman symbolizing the greatness of the Republic. Close to these is a huge color mosaic of artist John Trumbull’s painting, The Signing of the Declaration of Independence. Dotting almost every surface available around all of this are hundreds if not thousands of graves.  Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy are buried in the nearby “Garden of Everlasting Peace.” A choir sings from speakers planted around the garden which makes the whole experience typically unsettling.

Nothing, though, not the gaudy (presumably even for the era they went up) “recreations” of Michelangelo statues, the unfriendly staff, or the exclamatory signs planted throughout that warn the visitor not to wander around alone can compete for the sheer spectacular strangeness of Lullaby Land. Lullaby Land is a hillside area of the cemetery reserved for the remains of infants. There is a castle structure that looks lifted straight from a putt putt course, a poem by E.A. Brinninstool displayed, and stone cherubs everywhere. Beyond this is a heart-shaped garden plot and then row upon row of dead babies. Most of the graves date back to the 1940s and 50s. I confess that after I happened upon and took time to visit Lullaby Land during my inaugural hike through Forest Lawn I was ready to call it a day.

It’s not that I was spooked or depressed or offended by Lullaby Land. It was designed to be sweet and it is. But it did add to the sense of emotional overload that I was experiencing after several hours wandering around aimlessly inside Forest Lawn’s cemetery gates. At that point I really just wanted to get out of there. Ultimately it’s hard to know what to make of Forest Lawn. As L.A.’s former top tourist attraction it’s a place that makes sense only in the context of the city’s history and specifically its reputation as a cultural wasteland. Unlike Hollywood Forever there was no romance to the place just the feeling of being trapped in a kingdom of ersatz everything.TC mark

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  • Thomas

    This was moving and beautiful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    At first, I thought this was referring to a Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY… RICK JAMES

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