When 88-year-old Ludmila Pasternak visits her husband’s grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, she sits on a bench, smoking a cigarette and clutching a bouquet of roses, next to a monument with her husband’s portrait engraved in granite.
When she dies, she plans to be buried next to her husband in a family plot she purchased in the 1990s for $10,000.
“I didn’t buy a condo or house in America,” said the West Hollywood resident, originally from Ukraine, whose late husband was a second cousin of Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak. “But I bought this monument because it is our eternal home. It had to be big and beautiful.”
One headstone in the section occupied by Russian-speaking occupants depicts a man smoking a cigar. Another has a sculpture of a car attached to its top. A third one portrays an open book with three words scribbled in Cyrillic, translating to: “That’s it.” Many are masterpieces of creativity compared with the flat stones and gray tombstones of other, non-Russian areas of the manicured cemetery lawns. Russians brought “a new life into our cemetery,” said Vladimir Chiltsov, the cemetery’s vice president. “They brought a new fashion.”
As Russian immigrants who arrived from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s reach their older years, some are making plans for their burials. For many, Hollywood Forever is a desirable final resting point because it allows them to build the lavish monuments and sculptures that other cemeteries ban.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood was built in 1899. The 62-acre site, which borders the Paramount Pictures lot, has more than 80,000 gravesites and witnessed the burials of Mickey Rooney, Rudolph Valentino and Jayne Mansfield.
Russian-speaking immigrants began arriving in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, and shortly after that turned to Hollywood Forever to bury their loved ones.
Russians from all parts of the city, including West Hollywood, Marina del Rey and the San Fernando Valley, started purchasing their plots long ahead of their deaths.
Some transferred remains of their family members from as far as Georgia, Russia and Ukraine.
A few Russian celebrities were buried here, including members of the royal family and Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin.
In the late 1990s, the demand from Russian clients was so high that the owners decided to hire Chiltsov to assist Russian-speaking customers.
“We hired a Russian speaker because it was already a Russian cemetery,” said Tyler Cassidy, the cemetery co-owner, who purchased it in 1998. “It naturally became a cemetery of Hollywood and West Hollywood communities.”
Today, Russian plots occupy about 30 percent of the cemetery. Several roads recently were closed to clear space for new graves to bury the recently departed members of Russian families.
Slowly, the section occupied by Russian-speaking immigrants became reminiscent of a cemetery in Moscow or Odessa, with rows of towering monuments, vast sculptures and full-sized drawings engraved in stone.
“Luckily, we can install monuments here,” said Pasternak, who moved from Ukraine in 1979. “Other cemeteries don’t let us to do that. They only allow plaques.”
A spokesperson for Mount Sinai Memorial Park declined to comment on how many Russian-speaking immigrants are buried in that cemetery but said its policy bans monuments for religious reasons. A representative for Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale could not be reached for comment.
Still, Hollywood Forever customers take seriously designing their monuments.
Some headstones are decorated with sculptures of trees, guitars and broken hearts. One life-sized sculpture depicts a man sitting on a throne.
A granite monument, topped with an Israeli star and menorah, features a man in a tuxedo next to his deceased wife.
A long message on the monument tells a story of a man who helped his relatives move from abroad.
“He brought them here, but in the end they became enemies because of envy,” the message reads in Russian. “Happy is the one whose name is well remembered.”
For Pasternak, owning a monument means having a space where she can spend time reflecting about her life.
“I come here to sit down and tell my husband about my day,” she said. “I'm going to have injections this week, and I tell him to ask God to help me.”
Vladimir Paperny, an adjunct professor at UCLA who specializes in Russian culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, said Russians strive to build vast monuments to restore their status lost during Soviet times, when anyone of aristocratic origin was murdered or forced to flee.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone started searching for their royal ancestors.
“It’s a nostalgia for destroyed aristocracy and elite,” Paperny said. “They want to show their children and grandchildren that their parents had royal roots.”
For Pasternak, installing a monument with her husband’s portrait was a way to honor his memory.
“I wanted a beautiful monument, so people see and remember my husband,” she said. “When I pass away, I want our son to come here to visit us.”
Many Russians spend heavily on the afterlife.
They purchase entire rows of plots for family members who are still alive, custom-design their towering monuments and order elaborate funeral services.
On average, Russian clients spend about 40 percent more on such services than their American counterparts, according to Chiltsov.
“Russians are not the poorest community here,” Chiltsov said. “They are ready to spend money on funerals and monuments. Some can sell an apartment in Russia to pay for a memorial here.”
Monuments cost $3,000 to $11,000, and the average monument has a price tag of about $8,500. Custom-designed monuments cost $14,000 to $20,000. About 90 percent of Russians request monuments above their graves, Chiltsov said.
The monument price comes on top of other costs, including the price of plots, which ranges from $17,000 to $200,000, with an average price of $30,000.
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“Russians might pay the biggest price because they say, ‘Didn’t my husband earn it?’” Chiltsov said.
On a recent Sunday, the cemetery seemed peaceful and serene. Cats curled up on granite tombstones and peacocks quietly slid between the graves. A group of about 30 people gathered in the corner of the cemetery for a burial service. A rabbi said a prayer in Hebrew and Russian.
Despite careful preparations, many Russians admit they are not ready to move into their eternal homes yet.
“I want to live until I’m 90 years old, but when I die, my son will bury me here,” Pasternak said. “I already paid for everything.”