The History of Forest Lawn Cemetery: Celebrity Resting Place, Butt of Jokes
In the 100-year-old tradition of making fun of Los Angeles, the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale has, at different times, loomed large as a target.
Beginning back around WWI when the movie industry and L.A.’s reputation were first starting to heat up, journalists and commentators would sweep in from the Beast Coast to this upstart town, take in a few choice sites and cultural thingies (“Movie stars, how horrible! Bungalows, wretched! Cars, never heard of them!”), then go back to New York and write magazine hit pieces about our fair Southland. (Meanwhile, ordinary Americans were visiting L.A. as tourists by the thousands and enjoying it; the Dadaist painter Marcel Duchamp put in his two cents’ worth when he visited in 1921, writing to a friend back East, “I fail to see any evidence of the so-called ‘bad taste’ of Hollywood that everyone seems to object to so much,” adding appreciatively, “The air here is delicious.”)
Even in the ‘20s, Forest Lawn Memorial Park (to give its full and proper name) was getting hit for its alleged lack of good taste and high-pressure salesmanship. British novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote a comic novel called The Loved One (1948), which made much comic hay out of, for example, embalmers plying their trade fine-tuning the faces of fresh cadavers at the in-house mortuary of Waugh’s barely fictionalized cemetery, Whispering Glades, transparently modeled on Forest Lawn:
“‘We had a Loved One last month who was found drowned. He had been in the sea a month and they only identified him by his wrist-watch. They fixed that stiff,’ said the hostess disconcertingly lapsing from the high diction she had hitherto employed, ‘so he looked like it was his wedding day. The boys up there surely know their job. Why if he’d sat on an atom bomb, they’d make him presentable.’”
Even today the molding of a corpse’s mouth into a smile, as described in the book, still occurs routinely in mortuary practice. Hopefully with the family’s consent.
Things heated up again, in the ‘60s of course, when a British Communist named Jessica Mitford (her own sisters were full-on Fascists and Nazis) decided that Forest Lawn Glendale offended her prim and proper English-Communist sensibilities, and wrote a book called The American Way of Death. (Was she just bored? A BBC doc on the Mitford sisters commented, “the antics of the Mitfords transfixed Britain ...They became the pin-up girls for the political madness of those years … 99 percent of the British were much duller.”)
Mitford’s vinegary book was a so-called expose of the (non-shocking) fact that funerals in the modern U.S. can cost a lot of money. In it, she made some legitimate points, “exposing” that expensive, sleek caskets that look more like shiny gold Cadillacs are a recent and, surprise, American invention. She wasn't above lying either, claiming in her book that Forest Lawn’s reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue of David was puritanically altered with a fig leaf, “giving it a surprisingly indecent appearance.” Well, guess what: there is no fig leaf; his bits are there for all to see — religious and instructional!
The older and funnier novel, by the misanthropic Mr. Waugh really caught fire in popular culture, when a hilarious movie was made of The Loved One (1965), starring a wacky line-up of stars: Liberace, Rod Steiger, Paul Williams (the songwriter) and stand-up comic Jonathan Winters. “What in God's name is happening here?!” shrieked the trailer, promising the public “A motion picture with something to offend everyone.”
Sure enough, here comes Liberace as a Whispering Glades' “grief counselor” and casket salesman dealing with a bereaved customer (played by actor Robert Morse): “All our units are waterproof ... and here are your bronzes: they are dampness-proof. Not merely waterproof, nor moisture-proof, daaammp-ness-proof. Liberace’s “Counselor Starker” character continues showing off the fine-quality, interior casket linings: “Tell me Mister Barlowe, was your father a sensitive person? Rayon chafes, you know. Personally, I find it really quite abrasive.” And fresh after President Kennedy’s televised funeral it must have stung American audiences to hear Liberace offering a choice of “eternal flames” to his customers: “I can give you our eternal flame in either Perpetual Eternal or Standard Eternal!” The Loved One still holds up today as a cultish masterpiece of black humor, one of those ‘60s comedies where American culture started to make fun of itself; a kind of PG-rated Naked Lunch (not too surprisingly, the film was written by William Burroughs’ equally subversive writer friend Terry Southern).
But a cemetery, a boneyard, a repository for skeletons, a rest home for eternity, the last stop, is obviously a very serious place. Ask Edgar Allan Poe.
Forest Lawn Glendale was officially founded in 1906 and its spectacular growth over the following decades, commandeered by an entrepreneur named Hubert Eaton, reflected the capitalist-utopian views and attitudes of boomtown L.A., expanding and reaping success after success through the Roaring Twenties and beyond. Forest Lawn’s aggressive salesmanship in selling “pre-need” lots (or plots) was part and parcel of the loud, glad-handing era of Southern California boosterism and “sell-sell-sell.”
According to Laura Kath Fraser’s 2007 book, Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a Forest Lawn executive named Harry Earnshaw stood up and proclaimed at a national meeting of cemetery superintendents in 1929 that Forest Lawn “boldly tells the public its story … using … practically every legitimate medium of advertising: radio, newspapers, billboards, theater programs, direct advertising through the mail,” etc. These L.A. billboards, Earnshaw announced, might depict “a beautiful painting of the sea, no land or other objects in sight except clouds” with the caption, “Eternal – as the sea …” or a painting of deep other space with the legend “Eternal – as the heavens ...”
While this is pretty funny, it’s too easy to just sneer at that time; it was a different world, and it took a generation of big-visioned builders of the William Mulholland and Hubert Eaton mold to build this city, to make dams and aqueducts that made living in this region physically possible a full century later; Eaton, you could say, took care of the other side of the coin (and if Eaton, known as “the Builder” in Forest Lawn lore, wasn’t quite on Mulholland's level, you must admit that the desire to make 20th-century cemeteries that were tranquil like gardens or parks, is actually a pretty noble one). “No bleak tombstones mar its beauty,” according to an early history of the place. “Nothing in Forest Lawn resembles the old-time cemetery, the graveyard.” Well, that’s almost true.
I visited the cemetery recently on a bright weekday afternoon (not my first visit, either; I put in my time years ago as an old-celebrity-searching L.A. cemetery hound). Driving in on Glendale Avenue, a funeral was in progress just inside the gate. I wanted to get a look first at the oldest part of Forest Lawn, on the western edge of the grounds, the area dotted with, indeed, old-fashioned, “churchyard”-style upright tombstones that were put there before the policy was changed in favor of flush-with-the-ground plaques for regular graves. In this area as well are some amazing, undeniably beautiful white marble statues of angels and such atop a few of the oldest graves; they’re really worth seeing up close, and some have quite adorable asses. Now that’s art!
Courtesy Tony Mostrom
We the lucky living ones feel nothing but tranquility and peace, inhaling these nice grassy breezes, walking over these rows and rows of dead on a windy Spring day, looking down at bronze and red stone plaques of varying ages. Seen all together and covering so many acres, these stones feel like a kind of very old expired telephone directory, and the mind flies back to those long-gone birth and death years that you see carved thereon, the “dear dead days” that we know through the medium of tintypes and antique black-and-white photographs, but here you can actually touch them:
Bettie H. Thrasher, 1846-1925,
Nellie Blankenship 1888-1961,
John Grumbling 1843-1918,
Sarah T. Grumbling 1849-1933,
Clarence E. Corbalay 1873-1923,
Cora A. Gilmore 1870-1948,
Sofie Funder 1883-1921,
Dale Dare 1903-1927 …
… just multiply by thousands upon thousands.
The grave of Bettie H. Thrasher, who apparently hailed from Kentucky
Courtesy Tony Mostrom
You notice those names, girls’ names that almost nobody has anymore: Mildred, Matilda, Tillie, Agnes, May, Minnie, Ida, Muriel; they’re all here. Basically, I saw more Myrtles, Gertrudes and Nellies than you can shake a stick at.
Courtesy Tony Mostrom
Now here’s a curious one I noticed on the western edge, and it’s one of the oldest stones: WALTER JAMESON. There was an old Twilight Zone episode with a character who had this name; Kevin McCarthy played Professor Walter Jameson, a handsome young man who it turned out was many thousands of years old. (It was a really good episode.) Now I’m imagining some young TV screenwriter taking an inspirational walk through Forest Lawn in 1959 and ...
From this area you can see on the outer, western walls of the impressively fortress-style Great Mausoleum buildings three groups of white marble statues, all carved in Rome in the 1920s by an Italian sculptor named Ernesto Gazzeri. Even though the title of the third sculpture you see there is given officially as “Father Love,” those of us who went to Catholic school will recognize right away that this is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Look at the joyful expression carved onto the father's face. It’s very touching.) Who remembers, who even knows the name of the sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri? Now you do.
Courtesy Tony Mostrom
It’s well known that in addition to the Bettie H. Thrashers of the world, celebrity graves are a top draw for tourists who come to here by the thousands every year; pre-Michael Jackson, the grounds were already rich in, shall we say, expired stars. It would be tedious to list too many of the showbiz names, but here’s a baker’s dozen:
Walt Disney, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Alexander Pantages, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, Jean Harlow, Nat King Cole, you get the idea …
Eventually, one gets tired of all this and needs to shake off that vaguely oppressive, smothered feeling that you sometimes feel when you’re in a particularly dusty used bookstore; after a while you just gotta get out. So I got in my car and drove through the hills, up to the cemetery’s Great Mausoleum.
The rolling green hills go on and on acre after acre, and are nicely dotted with trees; it's a very tranquil respite from the city. One hopes that the departed under the grass feel (feel?) the same way, no matter how hideously they might have died. The promo literature calls Forest Lawn “A Place for the Living,” and I have to say, considering its value as a kind of oasis of peace in the midst of the city, it’s a good thing to visit and just drive (or dare I say, walk) around, take in the views from the hills.
To my raised-Catholic eyes, the stained glass artworks on display inside the Great Mausoleum, are incredible; it's an old art form deserving of wider recognition.
Without doubt the hippest thing going nowadays at Forest Lawn Glendale (besides Michael Jackson’s crypt, but that’s not accessible to anyone) is the Forest Lawn Museum, which over the last decade has put on some spectacularly engaging art shows under the direction of their recently retired curator Joan Adan.
(Full disclosure: your humble artist-writer was included in a 2015 show at the museum titled “Revolutions: The Art of Music,” which featured the original artwork for legendary album covers.)
Like some other easily accessible L.A. promontories, the hilltop parking lot adjoining the museum affords some spectacular views of, well, Glendale … and I suppose the edge of Eagle Rock; all you have to do is drive up there, get out of your car, put away that effing cellphone, straighten up and suck in that good, clean air. As a wise philosopher wrote, we die only once, but we live many days.
One final note: when I die at the age of 300 in the year 2258, I think I want to be put in a vault here, maybe one about six feet above the marble floor. It’s pretty far from the ocean, so I think the crypt should last a good long time.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.