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Meet You at the Cemetery Gates

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

It was at one of those recent benefit screenings of the movie Rock ’n’ Roll High School held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery that I finally came to grips with the idea of mortality and the thought of being permanently buried 6 feet under. I don’t usually get so profoundly morbid while watching P.J. Soles and Dey Young skip around Vince Lombardi High School in their absurd yet noble quest to score tickets to the big Ramones concert, but there was something oddly moving about the setting as the collective laughter of tattooed punks bounced off the tombstones. The evening shadows made the cemetery look more mysterious, like a forest, and I could just see the curving crest of the Hollywood Hills glittering prettily off to the north. My real life didn’t begin until I saw the Ramones at age 16 in early 1978, when I first realized that I wasn’t the only freak in the world, and it felt like things had spun full circle as I watched Allan Arkush’s farce several decades later, along with several hundred other fans. It was comforting to huddle near the statue of Johnny Ramone (who, contrary to popular misconception, isn’t buried there) and know that Dee Dee’s grave lay nearby in the darkness. If I have to die, why not be buried here among the Tinseltown stars and the ghosts of one of my favorite bands?

It’s important to find a graveyard that feels like home. Certainly, it would be exciting to be buried among celebrities and other historic people I’d fancy talking to in an afterlife, but many old cemeteries used to have racist interment policies. I’d hate to spend the rest of my forever being ostracized by a bunch of snobby ghouls. Picking the right place to get lost for an eternity requires some soulful window-shopping. I like to sleep in cemeteries overnight to get a feel for a place, to get used to the idea of death and to see how I’ll get along with the current residents. It’s not much different from testing out a new bed by lying down on a mattress in a furniture store, although it can get scary at times, like the night I was awakened in an Austin boneyard by the sounds of rustling creatures who weren’t really there. Most ghosts don’t bother me, though. Death is already boring and lonely enough, so the more creepy things that go bump in the night, the better.

I used to like to wander around the Los Angeles National Cemetery because it was a calm, quiet oasis of orderly green safely hidden by tall trees from the surrounding hubbub of the nearby office buildings and Wilshire Boulevard’s endless parade of traffic. After a while, though, the deeper meaning behind the perfect symmetry of those miles of aisles, those neat rows of uniform little white crosses marching permanently in place, started to sink in. Each identical cross crowned an identical grave that swallowed up a life — often a young life that never reached its potential. It didn’t matter if they were good soldiers or bad soldiers, or fighting good wars or bad wars. They were all buried here just the same, the known and unknown, without individuality, without variation. The National Cemetery looked peaceful and innocent like a golf course, but it wasn’t a restful place to sleep or dream. It was too much for one’s subconscious, an accumulated bummer with those thousands of rows of heartbreak crying out for attention once the sun went down.

Similarly, I’ve always thought that Forest Lawn–type cemeteries are too big and impersonal, too much like a Costco for the dead. I often think it would be better to leave my corpse out in the hills for the coyotes to scatter, but, if I had to be buried somewhere locally, my favorite resting place would be Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica. That cemetery has personality, with graves dating back to the 19th century amid a pleasant clutter of tombs, many topped with mournful angels and other elaborately sentient sculptures. It’s a lovely site, and most nights you can catch a salty whiff of the Pacific Ocean just down the street. Woodlawn is the kind of cemetery where the spirits are friendly and every ghost already knows your name. It’s a great place to hang out — if only you didn’t have to die to get in.

hollywood forever CEMETERY 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 469-1181

Los angeles national CEMETERY 950 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A., (310) 268-4675

WOODLAWN MEMORIAL CEMETERY 1847 14th St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-0781