Monthly Archives: October 2012

Cemetery of the Week #82: Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park

Skyscrapers loom over graves in Westwood Village Memorial Park

aka Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery
1218 Glendon Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90024
Telephone: (310) 474-1579
Founded: 1905
Size: 2.5 acres
Number of interments: 1000?
Open: 8 a.m. to dusk. Office closes at 5 p.m.

The first burials in the graveyard date from the 1880s, but the cemetery itself was established officially in 1905 by the State of California. At that time, it was called Sunset Cemetery and served as the burial ground for the sleepy village of Westwood. Surrounded by a low wall and dirt roads, Sunset Cemetery stood in the middle of grasslands and a handful of country homes.

Now Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is entirely surrounded by high-rises, so that the graveyard is invisible from the street. You can only enter on its west side, from Glendon Avenue. Watch for a small sign about eye level on one of the buildings as you’re headed toward Wilshire Boulevard. The entrance looks as if you’re driving into a parking lot, but veer right at your first opportunity and you’ll see parking on the street that encircles the burial lawn.

The cemetery’s name changed to Westwood Memorial Park in 1926. The graveyard only allowed ground burials until 1952, when the first of its ten mausoleums was built. Service Corporation International bought the cemetery from the Pierce Brothers in 1991 and added it to their Dignity Memorial Network, which includes cemeteries across the US. In 2002, Westwood Memorial Park was recognized by the Cultural Heritage Commission of Los Angeles as a Historical-Cultural Monument.

Marilyn’s lipstick-pink marble

Seeing Stars says, “If you had to choose only one Hollywood cemetery to visit, Westwood Village Memorial Park would be your best bet.” This was not always the case. Joe DiMaggio chose this cemetery to be Marilyn Monroe’s final resting place because it was sleepy and out of the way. Since then, the marble front of her niche in the mausoleum has been stained pink by all the lipstick kisses left by fans.

Natalie Wood’s marker

According to Forever L.A.: A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries and their Residents, the second most-visited grave in Westwood belongs to Natalie Wood, who starred in Westside Story and Rebel Without a Cause, and drowned in her nightgown after a night of partying on a yacht with her husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken.

Also buried in Westwood Memorial Park are Rodney Dangerfield (whose headstone says, “There goes the neighborhood.”), Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin, Bob Crane (most famous for Hogan’s Heroes and the scandalous way he died), Carroll O’Connor (who played Archie Bunker before he became a TV police chief), Don Knotts (who moved from The Andy Griffith Show to Disney movies to become the nosy landlord on Three’s Company, and original Charlie’s AngelFarrah Fawcett.

Don Knott’s lovely marker

The cemetery contains some especially sad stories. Dominique Dunne, the older sister in the first Poltergeist movie, was strangled by an ex-boyfriend. Heather O’Rourke, the pretty blonde girl swallowed by the Poltergeist house, died of heart failure during surgery at the age of 12. 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, was transitioning into television guest spots and legitimate movies, when she was raped and murdered by the husband from whom she had separated.

Robert Bloch rests behind this gate

In addition to all the movie stars, Westwood has its share of writers. Author of In Cold Blood Truman Capote’s ashes are in a niche facing the cemetery entrance. The ashes of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, are in the Room of Prayer columbarium beyond Marilyn. Billy Wilder, screenwriter of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot, has a headstone that reads, “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.” Near him lies Ray Bradbury, whose headstone remembers him as the author of Fahrenheit 451.

Bettie Page’s little stone

Some stars rest here without little fanfare. “Queen of the Pin-Ups” Bettie Page has a very modest stone.  Frank Zappa’s ashes are apparently buried in the unmarked grave beside Lew Ayers, who was TV’s Dr. Kildare. Roy Orbison, best remembered as a Traveling Wilbury or for the song “Pretty Woman,” lies in an unmarked plot above Frank Wright Tuttle’s bronze marker, according to The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians.

Useful links:

Capsule biographies of the stars buried in Westwood

A brief history of Westwood Village Memorial Park on the cemetery’s homepage

Does Marilyn’s ghost haunt Westwood?

Adventures in Grave Hunting in Westwood

The Westwood listing on

My review of Permanent Californians

My review of Laid to Rest in California

To aid in your search, as none of the books I’ve referenced has a particularly good map, check out The Original Map to the Stars’ Bones: The Original Map to the Stars’ Bones

The Autumn People

The best bench in LA from which to contemplate the night.

My birthday is kind of a holy day for me. I try to take it off, spend it in a graveyard if at all possible. I’ve celebrated my birthday in Pere Lachaise, in the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora, and in Colma’s many graveyards. Like the poet said, “Any day above ground is a good one.” If there’s sunshine and green grass, birdsong and statuary, or trees and flowers and poetry involved, so much the better.

Last week, I spent the morning of my birthday poking around Westwood Village Memorial Park near UCLA. (I’ll feature it tomorrow as the Cemetery of the Week.) I’d been to the cemetery once before, in the winter as night was falling, when it grew too dark to photograph anything, let alone find anyone other than Marilyn Monroe. I still had a wonderful time, sitting on a bench under a huge, spreading tree, listening to the night settle down in the big city.

I wanted to visit Westwood in the daytime, to see if I could find that same sense of peace. Better than that, I found the grave of Ray Bradbury.

The master’s headstone

Ray Bradbury is my literary hero. I’ve read his books to pieces. I’ve underlined and analyzed and memorized his writing. I had the opportunity to meet him only once. I was so tongue-tied I could barely tell him how much his work meant to me. Luckily, I think I was more eloquent as I stood over his grave, despite the tears in my eyes.

“For these beings, fall is ever the normal season,” he wrote in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the first of his books I read. “Where do they come from?” he asked. “The dust. Where do they go? The grave.”

It’s like he knew me. In the book, the autumn people are the bad guys, but I am an autumn person. I am headed to the grave, spiraling closer one year at a time, but every day in the open air is a blessing and a gift. It’s been a joy to have Ray Bradbury’s stories as company along the way.

I’m glad I finally got to tell him that.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

The Grim Reaper in Florence’s English Cemetery

After our visit to Il Cimitero degli Inglesi, I read the little booklet available from the cemetery office.  It said that many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery were in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground. I wondered if the Swiss Evangelic Church had ever been allowed to bless the land of the cemetery it oversaw.

In the sea of sculpture that stood on this little island of the dead, the most amazing monument marked an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandished a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wore his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peeped out at the bottom. A rag blindfolded his eye sockets but didn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.

In America, parents mark their children’s graves with teddy bears or toy cars.  In the 19th century, when Casentini’s monument was created, Americans chose lambs (to connotate innocence) or broken rosebuds (to symbolize lives ended too soon).  Nowhere have I seen Death, in all his glory, standing over American children.

A Grave Interest: Joy Neighbors

Photo of Joy by Brian Neighbors

Joy Neighbors began blogging in 2011 about cemeteries, history, and genealogy at A Grave Interest.  Currently, she’s exploring truly spooky cemeteries like the Indiana Insane Asylum’s, but she’s written about medical pioneers, Hollywood stars, and “Cemeteries Worth the Visit.” One of my favorite of her posts was an intensive look at the victims of Jack the Ripper and their final resting places.

At the moment, Joy is raising funding for a book inspired by her cemetery explorations.  I’m a backer.  Hopefully, you’ll choose to become one, too.

Cemetery Travel: What sparked your interest in Jane Todd Crawford’s story in the first place?
Joy Neighbors: I discovered the grave of Jane Todd Crawford last year, when I was out researching for my cemetery blog, A Grave Interest.

I stopped to take photos of stones, when I came across a historical marker describing Jane Todd Crawford as a medical pioneer; she is the reason that not only ovarian surgery but also any abdominal surgery became possible.

I began researching her life, but was called to Kentucky for nine months of consulting work. During free time there, I went to several cemeteries, including the one in Danville, Kentucky. That’s where I discovered the home of Dr Ephraim McDowell, the doctor who had performed this lifesaving surgery on Jane Crawford over 200 years ago. All of the pieces just came together. How could I not write this book?

The historic plaque at Jane’s grave. Photo by Joy Neighbors.

Jane Todd Crawford had thought she was pregnant with twins, but consulted a doctor when the pregnancy went too long. Dr. Ephraim McDowell examined her and pronounced the pregnancy an ovarian tumor—a death sentence in 1809. McDowell thought he could operate, but he warned Jane that it had never been done successfully. Jane weighed her options and agreed to the experimental surgery.

Jane Crawford rode for several winter days on horseback, balancing the tumor on the pommel of her saddle. She arrived at McDowell’s home in Danville, Kentucky just before Christmas 1809. She underwent the operation on Christmas morning, held down by several strong men. (Anesthesia was not yet invented.) Outside, an angry crowd waited for the announcement she had died, so they could lynch the doctor for attempting to “play God.”

Dr. McDowell successfully removed the 22-pound tumor during a 25-minute operation. Jane was able to return home before the end of January 1810. She spent a few more years in Kentucky before moving to Indiana, where she lived for another 30 years.

Cemetery Travel: Could you describe her tombstone?

Jane Todd Crawford’s monument. Photo by Joy Neighbors.

Joy Neighbors: Her original stone is rectangular and hard to read due to years of weathering. It had been broken off at the base and was placed in cement with a plaque at the foot of it in the 1940s when the large monument was erected.

The monument has Jane’s story on the front with a carving of Jane on horseback. (No tumor is apparent in the carving.) The first time I saw it, I thought it was a knight on horseback.

Cemetery Travel: What are you planning to do to get the word out about her courage?
Joy Neighbors: I know I have everything to make this a success, except the finances. That’s when I started looking for an innovative way to finance the project. A friend told me about Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site. It just made sense.

I come from a public broadcasting background, so I understand pledging. This is the same thing; I’m asking you to pledge a certain amount of money in return for a reward of an equivalent or higher value. Unlike PBS, if I don’t raise the specified amount by the end of my campaign period, I don’t receive any of the money and none of the backers are charged. My financial goal to do this book includes funds for research, travel, interviews, publishing, rewards, shipping, and taxes for a total of $30,000.

So, it all comes down to arithmetic; 3 backers at $10,000 each, or 30 at $1,000 each, or 300 at $100 each, or 1,200 at $25 each will reach my goal.

I only have about a week left to get the project fully funded.

To learn more, view the video, or back the project, just go to

I’ve taken it viral with Facebook and Twitter. I also have the Jane Todd Crawford page on Facebook.

I’ve sent press releases out nationally and contacted hundreds of ovarian cancer groups, history groups, and women’s groups.

Cemetery Travel: How can people help?
Joy Neighbors: I’m asking everyone to check out the links above, pledge what you can, and please post these links on your social media platforms. Time is growing short!!

To view the video and back the project, just go to Kickstarter.

Cemetery Travel: What’s the philosophy behind your blog?
Joy Neighbors: A Grave Interest is a blog about cemetery culture—art, history, issues of death, and genealogy—subjects of current relevance. People seem to view cemeteries as places you only go during a funeral, or to visit a loved one’s grave. I’ve always loved going out and exploring in cemeteries. You never know what you’ll find! Writing my blog makes it even more fun for me, because I can share my discoveries with other like-minded people.

Cemetery Travel: How do you choose topics for it?
Joy Neighbors: I usually find something that intrigues me, something that makes me want to dig deeper: something relevant, yet fascinating, that I can research. I’ll sit down in November and gather together all of the topic ideas I’ve had over the past year, then I’ll take a calendar for next year and begin assigning topics for certain dates. I publish every Friday, so I can decide where something will fit, based on the month and date. I like to keep it seasonal and historical. For instance, on the anniversary of Miles Davis’ death last month, I had a post about his life, closing with where he’s buried.

Cemetery Travel: What do you call your love for cemeteries? Do you consider yourself a taphophile?
Joy Neighbors: Oh yes! I am one of those people who love to wander cemeteries. I actually enjoy it more than visiting a museum. And I love being outdoors. Cemeteries are one of the most overlooked repositories of sculpture, stained glass, carvings, and architecture in the world. A cemetery gives you a unique opportunity to enjoy rarely appreciated art forms and designs and a chance to explore the history of that area—and its available for everyone to enjoy.

Cemetery Travel: What’s your favorite cemetery in the world—and why?
Joy Neighbors: It sounds cliché, but usually it’s the one I’m in at the moment. There’s so much that each one has to offer a Tombstone Tourist. You just have to take the time and explore, cause you never know what wonderful gem of art or history you’ll find.

Cemetery Travel: What cemetery would you most like to visit that you haven’t yet?
Joy Neighbors: WOW! I’d have a problem narrowing that list down to the top ten… 😉 I would love to go see the cemeteries of New Orleans; I’ve heard that they are amazing. But I’d also like to wander around Bonaventure Cemetery and take their Haunted Tour. Out of country, my first stop would be the cemeteries of Barcelona. The artwork and sculptures there are fantastic!

Cemetery Travel: People who like cemeteries often feel isolated or strange. Do you have any advice for them?
Joy Neighbors: I would suggest getting involved with your local cemetery and getting to know the people there. Check out your local genealogy and historical groups and societies. These are people who also care about the past, about preservation and history. Join some cemetery groups on Facebook. People in these groups love to discuss and share their experiences and photos regarding cemeteries. The main thing is to find where you connect, who are the groups and people who get the same vibe you do from cemeteries.

As an aside, I will say that if a cemetery, an area of the cemetery, or a group of people, for that matter, feels uncomfortable, don’t stay. Always follow your intuition. That’s why it’s there.

Cemetery Travel: What’s one thing people can do to ensure the survival of their favorite cemetery?
Joy Neighbors: Offer to volunteer and be ready to do what they need. Most of us would love to be part of a restoration or preservation project, but if your cemetery needs help with filing, or deciphering old records, then do it. It shouldn’t matter how we help, just that we help.

Cemetery Travel: Why should people care about cemeteries?
Joy Neighbors: Cemeteries symbolize our past, and our present. You can learn so much about a country, a community, or a group by the way they utilize their cemeteries, and the manner in which they are laid out, managed, and preserved. Cemeteries provide an excellent view back into history; the problems and diseases dealt with, the manner in which people lived and what was important to them. Cemeteries are truly an unvarnished look into the past.

Cemetery Travel: Anything else you want to mention?
Joy Neighbors: There’s no right or wrong way to explore or enjoy a cemetery. Just go out there and let the past sweep you away for a while.

Links to Joy’s work:
A Grave Interest

Her Facebook cemetery group

A New England Road Trip Companion

New England Cemeteries: A Collector's GuideNew England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide by Andrew Kull

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book jacket describes this as the “first and only” guide to the cemeteries of New England. I’m curious to know if that’s true. I know there were guides to Mt. Auburn and the other garden cemeteries published in the 19th century (unfortunately, I don’t have any of them in my collection), but I don’t know if there was an overall guide to the region — or if this is just a publisher’s hype.

Either way, this is a really fun book. If you’re making a road trip, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, throughout New England and wonder what lovely graveyards you might find along the way, this is the ideal guidebook. Andrew Kull seems to have actually visited these cemeteries and has opinionated, entertaining observations about them. I like that he directs H. P. Lovecraft “cultists” to ask directions to the author’s grave when they visit Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I like also his assertion: “Burial Hill in Plymouth enjoys, without question, the most magnificent site of any cemetery in New England.” Doesn’t that just make you want to see for yourself?

The primary flaw is a dearth of photographs, although there are a few. In addition, New England Cemeteries jams 260 cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds into a mere 240-some pages (plus index and an essay on how to make grave rubbings), so you’re not getting in-depth information. In fact, you’re not even getting cemetery addresses, though the book does include opening hours, which were current in 1975. Still, for company on a road trip, Kull’s book is a useful and entertaining companion.

New copies are exorbitant, but you can find reasonably priced used copies on Amazon: New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide

View all my Goodreads reviews.