From the pioneer plots that have long since fallen out of use to decaying graveyards full of large headstones to today's sprawling, immaculately groomed memorial parks, L.A.-area cemeteries are packed with the region's history. They tell us about our past, shedding light on the famous and obscure names that contributed to the building of the county. They clue us in to discriminatory practices and how that affected treatment of the dead. They hold the secrets that local historians have yet to uncover.
If you want to spend a day exploring cemeteries, the best course of action is to head to Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, where there is a high concentration of cemeteries. This list, though, heads from the northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley down to Long Beach and parts in between.
1. Holy Cross Cemetery
When I asked my Facebook friends for cemetery recommendations, Holy Cross was mentioned several times. This tidy and sprawling Catholic cemetery is in the hills above Culver City; if you drive down Slauson too quickly, you might miss it. It isn't a particularly spooky cemetery, but it's the one on this list with the most goth cred on account of Bela Lugosi being a permanent resident. Maybe don't blast Bauhaus' Halloween jam when you're driving through these hills. Holy Cross isn't quite as famous as Hollywood Forever or Forest Lawn, but it's quite the site for celebrity burials. Find a Grave notes that there are 292 “famous interments” on the grounds, among them Sharon Tate, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Chick Hearn, Spike Jones and Darby Crash. Note that Holy Cross is large, the roads are winding and the graves are simple plaques in the grass, so if you are grave-hunting, you'll need a map. 5835 W. Slauson Ave., Culver City.
2. Sunnyside Cemetery
My Long Beach friends suggested checking out Sunnyside Cemetery, and they did not steer me wrong. This eternal resting spot is 108 years old and is a historic landmark, but it has been facing hard times for years. A recent Long Beach Press-Telegram story notes that, back in 1994, the former owner of the cemetery stole more than half of the cemetery's endowment. Even though he was convicted and sentenced, the cemetery never recovered from that loss. Things have grown worse with a combination of low burial rates and overgrowth issues that occurred after this past winter's storms. Sunnyside Cemetery has been the home of various events. Last year, Long Beach Cinematheque hosted programming here, including a screening of Fire Walk With Me that featured a live performance by the band Xiu Xiu. Every year around Halloween, there's a Historical Cemetery Tour, where actors portray the stories of those interred in this dilapidated cemetery. 1095 E. Willow St., Long Beach.
3. Odd Fellows Cemetery
The Odd Fellows, an organization with roots going back to 18th-century England, works to take care of community members in life and death. Its Boyle Heights cemetery is as old and rambling as any you'll find in the neighborhood — and there are quite a few — but it's also the final location in a very strange '80s saga. In the early 1980s, more than 16,000 aborted fetuses were found in a bin outside the home of a lab owner. The disturbing discovery led to a lengthy legal battle over what to do with the remains, all of which was tangled up in religion, the abortion debate and separation of church and state. Inevitably, the case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the fetuses could be buried or cremated but that it could not be a religious ceremony. Hence, they were interred at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in a ceremony that was nonreligious, but perhaps more than a little political, given that the eulogy was written by then-President Reagan. 3640 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights.
4. Evergreen Cemetery
My great-grandparents are interred at Evergreen, so I visited this Boyle Heights cemetery here and there throughout my youth and was always struck by how wonderfully creepy the place was. One of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles, Evergreen is noteworthy for a lot of reasons, not all of them good. A KCET story from 2013 notes that the cemetery allowed African-Americans to be buried on the grounds, which was not the case at other local burial sites, but that its treatment of deceased Chinese was less than stellar. Chinese Angelenos, the story notes, were charged to be buried in the potter's field; many years later, some of their remains were found during Gold Line construction. Parts of Evergreen are divided by ethnicity, among them Japanese and Armenian. It's also known as a burial site for carnival and circus performers. L.A. Conservancy notes that the cemetery, which dates back to 1877, still buries 1,500 homeless and/or unidentified people every year. In recent years, Evergreen has been the subject of scrutiny over its maintenance, or lack thereof. In 2014, the L.A. Times reported that there had been long-running problems with the cemetery's owner, who also owned Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton and had faced charges for lousy conditions there, as well as misuse of endowment funds at both cemeteries. Evergreen was investigated in 2006 and placed on probation; its license was revoked in 2010 but restored a few years later. 204 N. Evergreen Ave., Boyle Heights.
5. Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery
Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery was recommended by a friend for its aging graves. This Pico-Union cemetery, which dates back to the 1800s, is crammed with weathered tombstones and monuments, and the West Adams Heritage Association notes that it was the first local cemetery with no racial or religious restrictions. In a 2014 story, SCPR reported that one noteworthy permanent resident of the cemetery is Allen Allensworth, a former slave who fought for the Union and became the first African-American colonel. The same story also mentions that Hattie McDaniel was buried here specifically because of racially discriminatory policies at another cemetery. While Angelus-Rosedale is home to its share of deceased celebrities, today's pop culture geeks will recognize it for another reason: Scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer were shot here. 1831 W. Washington Blvd., Pico-Union.
6. Hollywood Forever
Hollywood Forever is an incredibly obvious stop on a cemetery tour. Find a Grave notes that there are 639 “famous interments” here, which seems like a lot but maybe isn't when the same site notes that there are well over 46,000 people buried here. Some of the personalties memorialized on these grounds are downright legendary, such as Cecil B. DeMille and Jayne Mansfield. Both Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone are interred here, as is L.A. punk pioneer Tomata du Plenti. Most recently, the cemetery made the news again with the funeral of singer Chris Cornell. Hollywood Forever also has gained a reputation for its events, including the Cinespia film series, concerts at the Masonic Lodge and the annual Day of the Dead celebration. 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, 90038.
7. Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
Have you ever watched hardcore Michael Jackson fans wander around Forest Lawn's mausoleum and wonder if they know a secret passageway that the others don't? The late pop singer was laid to rest in a spot that isn't open to the public, but that doesn't keep the fans away from this superstar-friendly cemetery. You could seek out graves of the famous here, but the art that fills the grounds is a more intriguing attraction. Check out the on-site museum and the Great Mausoleum, but also take time to drive around and stop at whatever looks interesting. One of my favorite pieces is a reproduction of The Christus, mostly because its backstory involves saving art from the hands of Nazis. 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale.
8. Founders Memorial Park
Founders Memorial Park isn't technically a cemetery these days, but it used to be two neighboring burial sites. Whittier Daily News notes that the former Mount Olive and Broadway cemeteries date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, respectively, but they had fallen into disarray by the end of the 1950s. A decade later, the two cemeteries were turned into a park. The headstones are long gone, but some of the remains are still there. This is less a place to check out graves and more a place to creep out your friends during a picnic or ball game. 6755 Newlin Ave., Whittier.
9. Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park and Crematorium
The friend who suggested this Calabasas pet cemetery warned that it would be sad, but I wasn't quite prepared for how emotional a trip to the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park and Crematorium would be. The first thing I noticed were the flowers. There were more floral arrangements — some fairly elaborate ones at that — than I had seen at some of the spots on this list intended for humans. This cemetery is known for its celebrity clientele; here you'll find the pets of stars like Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, as well as famed animal actors. Still, the touching tributes to ordinary pets are the ones that will warm the heart or spark a tear. 5068 Old Scandia Lane, Calabasas.
10. San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery
It's not quite as old as San Fernando Mission Cemetery, but the San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, which came recommended by a Facebook friend, dates back well over a century. If you want to visit, your best bet is to plan ahead. The remnants of the former Morningside Cemetery are typically closed to the public. If you're in the neighborhood, you can get a good view of the small white crosses and few headstones from over the fence, which is what I did after showing up after visiting hours. To explore this tiny cemetery, though, you'll need to arrive between 9 a.m. and noon on the third Saturday of the month or schedule an appointment for a tour. According to the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, which currently cares for the cemetery, the graveyard's history dates back to the late 1800s, but Valley development shrunk its intended size and it ultimately closed in 1939. The Historical Society also notes that few of the tombstones remain; there has been an effort to try to discern exactly who was buried here. 14451 Bledsoe St., Sylmar.