When I’m not writing about cemeteries as travel destinations, I am a novelist. Whenever I can, I work cemeteries into my ficiton.
In the Nineties, just as I was beginning to explore cemeteries, I collaborated with Brian Thomas to write an epic love story between an angel and a succubus. As part of our location scouting for the books, Brian took me to cemeteries all around Los Angeles.
The first cemetery we visited was, of course, Forest Lawn. Brian lived in Glendale at the time, so Forest Lawn was practically in his neighborhood.
As we developed the story, I wrote some chapters and Brian wrote others. One of the pieces he wrote was about the angel Azaziel meeting a teenage runaway named Ashleigh amidst the statuary at Forest Lawn. Further into the story, Brian returned to Forest Lawn and particularly to the stained glass Last Supper window for a wonderful scene where the fallen priest Joseph regains his faith.
Marilyn’s lipstick-stained marble niche in Westwood Village Memorial Park
I’ve written about exploring Westwood Village Memorial Park in the dark on Cemetery Travel before. When I was revising the second book in the angel/succubus series in 2019, I realized that Lorelei and Azaziel needed a place to have their first real date, so I wrote Westwood into Angelus Rose.
In that same revision, I found a place to work the cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels into the book, too. When Brian and I initially wrote the books, the cathedral was still under construction. All these years later, when the books were finally being completed, it felt weird that the cathedral — such an important part of the religious life of Los Angeles — didn’t appear in our story. I revised the scene where the high school choirs perform for all the angels in the city and set the concert in the courtyard at the cathedral. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
Angels in Angelus Rosedale, Los Angeles California
Once we imagined the trajectory of Lorelei and Azaziel’s love story, Brian knew where the books had to end. He took me time and time again to explore Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery. The angels, palms, family tombs, chapel, and columbarium all appear in the book Angelus Rose, although they end up worse for wear.
Vintage postcard of Forest Lawn’s wrought iron gates – Taller than Buckingham Palace’s! From the collection of Loren Rhoads.
by Dana Fredsti
Cemeteries have never been scary places to me, despite my penchant for movies where corpses claw out of their coffins and munch on human flesh. The first time I saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it scared the hell out of me, especially the first scene in the old graveyard. Even so, it has always amazed me that some people are actually afraid to visit cemeteries. I suppose, if I was in Forest Lawn and rotted hands started poking out of the ground, I might change my mind. Until then, cemeteries are mildly fascinating places to stroll with my husband.
When I was no more than five years old, my family visited a cousin’s grave after he’d been killed in Vietnam. He was buried in a military cemetery at Point Loma, out above the ocean. I remember standing around the flat white rectangular marker with my mom, dad, sister, and grandmother. Thousands of identical markers dotted a sea of green grass, which spread around us as far as I could see. I had to go to the bathroom really badly and couldn’t understand exactly why we had to stare at this white slab on the ground. I didn’t remember my cousin. The concept of death was not within my grasp at that age. There were no bathrooms in sight.
Vintage postcard of Forest Lawn from the air.
I prefer old-style cemeteries, the ones with crumbling tombstones and old mausoleums. Unfortunately, my current hometown of Los Angels is the land of McCemeteries: Forest Lawn, the chain of full-service mortuary/cemeteries. One-stop shopping for all your burial needs. “One call takes care of everything” comforts the sign above the gates. Forest Lawn Glendale is a veritable theme park of the dead, complete with museums (filled with interesting armor, old coins, etc., but very little to do with death. I guess too much death-oriented stuff would depress the tourists.), gift shops (where you can buy postcards and religious kitsch – how about an ashtray with Jesus on it?), gardens, a lake with resident swans…and bathrooms.
Another amenity of Forest Lawn Glendale is piped-in music in parts of the cemetery, such as the Garden of Everlasting Peace and the Garden of Eternal Freedom. It’s really bad music, sort of Muzak for the dead. I wonder if the management thinks the music soothes those visiting their dead friends or if it is a holdover of the superstition of not disturbing the dead. I personally can’t imagine a worse fate than lying in a box, forced to listen to elevator music for the rest of eternity. It would send me clawing out of my grave just to change the tunes. I would be much happier, and more likely to stay put, if there was some lively music to listen to, maybe some activity going on around me. This is assuming, of course, that my “self” or “soul” or whatever is still sentient.
Our house is a half-hour walk from Forest Lawn Glendale, which provides at least another hour of exercise to cross. My husband and I recently walked over, stopping for coffee and chocolate croissants along the way. We hiked past the tacky “European” sculptures, up to the Garden of Everlasting Peace to visit Errol Flynn’s grave. Settling on a bench, we toasted Errol with coffee. (Alas, we had no whiskey.)
Family monument at Forest Lawn
As we ate breakfast, we were spotted by a security guard. He told us amiably that eating wasn’t allowed in the cemetery, but he’d look the other way if we didn’t leave a mess. He added that “some people” got really upset when they saw folks with food around the graves, so we should “keep a low profile.” He wandered off, leaving us to speculate what about eating would offend people. I mean, I could see a problem if we had a food fight over someone’s dead relative or made orgasmic noises, but otherwise, what’s the big deal? I suppose that the dead might possibly get pissed off that we’re up top enjoying life while they’re stuck in caskets, but it seems ridiculous that such a basic function of life should offend anyone, dead or living. Maybe it comes from the same train of thought that inspires epitaphs like “God Grant That He Lie Still”: the fear that the dead won’t stay dead. As much as people miss their loved ones, who wants ’em back after they’ve been rotting in the ground for a few years?
I’d rather not be buried in a place like Forest Lawn. I definitely don’t want my funeral held at any mortuary that serves up an impersonal eulogy by a Rent-o-Minister babbling on about life and death, children and rebirth, how the newly deceased will be “walking the fields of Heaven” and rejoicing in the glory of the afterlife. In short, nothing that relates to the actual deceased at all.
My grandma’s funeral was that impersonal. It was held a couple of weeks ago at Greenwood Mortuary in San Diego. My sister and I drove down to attend. The eulogy was so generalized that, for me, it actually lessened the grief. I don’t know who the minister was talking about, but it was certainly not my Grandma. At one point, he said something like, “The first thing she’ll do upon entering the Gates of Heaven will be to look for her husband and gently call his name.” My immediate thought was “Nonsense!” The first thing Grandma would do would be to yell, “REX!” for her psychotic terrier – who certainly shouldn’t have been admitted through the Pearly Gates in the first place – in a strident Bronx accent. Then, maybe, she’d check around for Grandpa. I almost committed the unforgivable sin of laughing when that popped into my mind.
The final touch of impersonality was added by one of our uncles, a landscape artist, when we put flowers on Grandma and Grandpa’s graves. Everyone had a single carnation (compliments of the house), which we placed on the headstones. After we’d all finished, our uncle rearranged the flowers to suit his idea of what looked “right.” That act trivialized our sentiment and simultaneously underlined the tone of the whole funeral.
The Irish have the right idea: a loud, rowdy wake where they celebrate living, not dying, where people get smashed and tell their favorite stories about the deceased. (“Ah, he was a real bastard, but I loved him, so help me, God!”) My husband and I talked about having our ashes forged into sword hilts, with the requisite curse placed on the sword, naturally, to prevent theft. This way, we’ll be around our family, passed down through generations and, hopefully, remembered. I don’t want to lie beneath another weathered headstone in a cemetery, with flowers replaced once a month until there’s no one left to remember me.
Forest Lawn is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to be dead there.
*** This essay appeared in the original Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, published by Automatism Press in 1996. Reprinted here with permission.
Dana Fredsti is an ex B-movie actress with a background in theatrical combat (a skill she utilized in Army of Darkness as a sword-fighting Deadite and fight captain). Through seven plus years of volunteering at EFBC/FCC, Dana’s been kissed by tigers and had her thumb sucked by an ocelot with nursing issues. She’s addicted to bad movies and any book or film, good or bad, which includes zombies. She’s the author of the Ashley Parker series, touted as Buffy meets The Walking Dead, and the zombie noir novella, A Man’s Gotta Eat What a Man’s Gotta Eat.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
We taphophiles don’t like to settle for armchair traveling, preferring to go adventuring on our own, but even we can use a good beach read (though from under the shade of an umbrella, as many of us do take pride in our common pallor). Loren Rhoads ‘ new book Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel is the perfect book to take along with you. It is a series of over 30 short essays about memorial spaces she has encountered ranging from her own childhood neighborhood in Michigan to Japan and the Czech Republic. As those of us who find ourselves seeking out cemeteries wherever we go, or even designing entire itineraries around visiting the dead, will find ourselves immediately at home in her words.
Above all, Rhoads is honest, and she does not hesitate to address the problems she encounters along the way. Her essays on Hollywood Forever, Forest Lawn and Green-Wood are each a case in point. The two Southern California cemeteries represent two extremes of how to run a contemporary cemetery business. Forest Lawn, resting place of Walt Disney, Errol Flynn and W.C. Fields was the first cemetery to take care of all of one’s post life needs, a sort of post mortem supermarket, with an emphasis on pre-need. This effort to rethink cemeteries also included a directive to deny sadness, “’The Builder’ (sic)… forbade depictions of grief and sorrow.” Most of the markers are bronze, flush to the ground to facilitate lawn care. The exceptions to that rule are limited to those who can afford one of the “approved” monument styles. Chaste copies of Michelangelo’s David (complete with fig leaf), and Carrera marble mediations on patriotism and “motherhood” provide suitable topics for contemplation, as thinking about death here seems to be off limits. Rhoads points out that picnicking, loitering and plantings are all forbidden, ostensibly as part of the cemetery’s mission to “serve the living,” yet the result is curiously lifeless. Forest Lawn may be best known for Evelyn Waugh’s thinly veiled portrait in The Loved One, but that’s satire. Rhoads’ portrait is simple truth, and, as such, infinitely more sad.
In contrast, Hollywood Forever, final home of Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield as well as Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, is quite full of life. Rhoads’ essay begins with a visit soon after the bankrupt Hollywood Memorial Park changed owners to a businessman with an eye to profitability. In that light many, including the author, were worried about the possible Disneyification of the once grand grounds. Rhoads expresses pleasant surprise at the professional care and restoration she saw 2001, although things were far from perfect. Rudolph Valentino’s stained glass was still under repair and there were questions of historical accuracy and appropriateness in some of Hollywood Forever’s video tributes. Nonetheless, they were well on the right track. Revisiting in 2013, Rhoads finds that the improvements continue that “a cemetery that’s used is a cemetery that’s loved and appreciated….Visitors keep a cemetery safer than guards,” something all too often forgotten.
Many of us have encountered cemeteries where the concern for safety and security has become coldness and paranoia. Though there is a reason for the control and management of visitors, it seems that some members of Green-Wood staff have taken things a bit too far. A 2002 visit was marred by a prickly security guard’s insisting on “absolutely” no photography while a less than helpful receptionist’s explained that photographs may not be published, even though Rhoads would have been happy to pay for a photo pass. I understand and support some sites blanket ban on images, such as for reasons of faith and tradition as many First Nation burials. Green-Wood though hosts lectures and tours for the sake of publicity, the no photography seemed to be a whim of the management. Not long after this essay was posted, Rhoads received a letter from the President of Green-Wood making some corrections. Concerned about her negative experience, he corrected internal misconceptions about the photography policy, which is to have photographers consult with and credit Green-Wood before publication. Rhoads’ journalistic integrity in reporting these issues fairly is impressive.
It is Rhoads’ objectivity that makes Wish You Were Here truly exceptional. Although she loves cemeteries and wants to share her enthusiasm for them with a broad public, she refuses a role of mere “booster,” instead calling for improvements, so that cemeterying remains enlightening and enjoyable. Rhoads knows that a bad experience at one place could color someone’s opinion of all cemeteries. In light of dwindling support avoiding this is to everyone’s benefit.
Rhoads is particularly adept at finding deeper meanings in what she sees, and the questions she puts to about the places she visits can gently guide us in our own search for meaning in the places we encounter. If you’ve struggled to explain your love of burial grounds to others, this may be a great way to help them understand the appeal is. Rhoads’ writing is both engaging and comforting. She doesn’t neglect the dead, but instead celebrates lives lived: their strength, determination, love, honor, each in its own place and time.
Most of the essays date from 1991-2002 (with a few revisits) I would have liked to see more revisits and photos that would reveal changes in the sites, and in the author’s perceptions. I look forward to a Volume II, preferably with color photographs the better to share my travels with her.
This is the best guide to the cemeteries of Los Angeles yet. Jammed with Douglas Keister’s beautiful color photographs — all exquisitely printed — the book weighs more than the other guides, which might make it prohibitive to drag around a graveyard with you, if you’re juggling a camera and notebook, too. If you’re just sightseeing, this is the book for you. All the color headstone photos make it easy to know exactly what you’re looking for.
However, the book is short on history of the graveyards. Permanent Californians is better for that, as well as more fully developed biographies of the biggest stars. Forever L.A. also focuses on fewer celebrities; if you want a more comprehensive list, Laid to Rest in California is the book you want.
In addition, Forever L.A. suffers from puzzling organization. You can read the section on Westwood Village Memorial Park, but the text directs you elsewhere in the book to the listing for Don Knotts and somewhere else again to read about Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Marilyn’s biography snuggles up against one for Joe DiMaggio, who isn’t buried in L.A. at all. I guess this just proves my contention that any collection of gravestones is necessarily going to be idiosyncratic and reflect the predilections of the person compiling it.
I see what Keister was doing when he collected together all the stars of The Wizard of Oz or Bonanza or It’s a Mad, Mad (etc.) World, but I found it frustrating not to have all the cemetery information gathered into the appropriate chapter when I was standing in the graveyard. Is this book meant for armchair travelers or people in the field?
And why is the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland included at all? While the photos are lovely, the section takes up valuable book real estate that could have been used by Angelus Rosedale, where Hattie McDaniel is buried and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was filmed.
Still, if you are traveling to L.A. and want to visit graveyards, I suggest you start with this book. It’s the most recent and has by far the prettiest pictures. You just might want to dip into the other books for more depth after you get home.
Start your collection of L.A. cemetery guides here: Forever L.A.
Any collection of cemetery books MUST include this one. This is the history of American graveyards pulled together into one readable, fascinating package. If you’ve wondered how cemeteries in America morphed from Boston’s Mount Auburn (one of the loveliest graveyards in the world) to Forest Lawn’s miles of flat bronze markers, this will answer your question in vivid detail.
The book suffers from a lack of illustrations, which makes it look uncomfortably like a textbook, but believe me, one you delve into these pages, you will learn while being entertained. In fact, the book reads much like a guidebook, leading you to yearn to visit these graveyards in order to see the historical remnants for yourself. This would be the perfect gift for that friend who devours history and can be counted on to dole out intriguing tidbits while the two of you stroll your local graveyard.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.