The street outside Hollywood Forever swarmed with people. My dear friend Daniel assumed we would park inside the cemetery gate, but it became clear as we crept up Santa Monica that wasn’t likely to happen. He made a circle around the block past Paramount, then let us out.
It was good he’d already bought us tickets. The ticket line was long enough to be scary in itself.
More than half of the people coming in had painted their faces like skulls. I thought about the anonymity that greasepaint could give. Johnny Depp could be here. Lindsay Lohan. Paris Hilton. If they weren’t traveling with an entourage, how would you recognize them? They could pass as any nameless skeleton.
Some people had bisected their faces so that only one side was grinning and white. I used to have a Maya-style black clay mask like that, which a friend brought back from Guatemala. Those half-faces were creepier to me than the whole skulls. The anonymity was shattered as the bearers claimed their own mortality, their own individual skulls.
In contrast to to the anonymous calacas stood the altars. Photos of dead faces gazed out at the crowd, standing amidst skulls of every hue, painted with flowers and curlicues, festive and happy.
When asked, some of the altar creators spoke about their loved ones. Others sat or stood, mute in their grief.
I felt like an intruder, like I spied on a ritual meant to be private or, at least, shared amongst a community who understood and felt the same loss. But the top prize for the altars was $3000, so there was an element of theatricality, of artistry, that was meant for consumption and display.
My thoughts wound around the anonymity of death, the universality of it. Death will erase us all and our skulls will likely not be enameled crimson or spangled with daisies. But memory is specific. Memory keeps us alive long after our flesh has fallen away.
I kept hearing snatches of the old Shriekback song: “Everybody’s happy as the dead come home.” It was a lot to process on my birthday, but like my birthday trips to Pere Lachaise and the Sedlec Ossuary and ever so many more graveyards, there was nowhere I would have rather been and no one with whom I would have rather spent my birthday. It was great that Hollywood Forever would throw a party that made me feel so alive.