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.
The sky burned with gold as we rounded the block again. The Thomas Guide wasn’t helping at all. None of the buildings seemed to be numbered. I was ready to give up. I considered suggesting we ditch the graveyard altogether and see about getting up to Griffith Observatory in time to catch the afterglow, but it was probably too late in the afternoon for that. I had no idea where we were in the greater Los Angeles area.
Anyway, Brian was determined to show me a graveyard I hadn’t seen before. He’d been there once, years ago, but hadn’t been driving. All he remembered was standing amongst the graves and feeling boxed in by skyscrapers. He didn’t remember which skyscrapers. “That’s why they always shoot movies from the opposite angle,” he explained, “so you don’t see the buildings looming over you.”
The car was full of tense silence. Brian had already apologized so profusely for getting lost that I couldn’t get mad. The response had been short-circuited. Now he was absolutely determined to find the place. I kept thinking about that James Van Pelt story in After Shocks where the couple is trapped in their car in LA as a metaphor for Hell.
Finally on the umpteenth pass by Glendon on Wilshire, I spied a little white sign at eye level between the skyscrapers. “I think that’s it!” I crowed.
We circled the long block once more, passing the Westwood Presbyterian Church, the private school with the mysteriously painted mural, back through the neighborhood with the immaculate white houses and bright green grass.
We turned right onto Glendon again. “Slowly,” I cautioned. “I think it’s just past the pink building.”
Brian snapped, “Past the pink building is Wilshire.”
“No, there’s an alley…”
We were on top of the turn before I could see the little white sign for the Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park. They certainly didn’t want to draw attention to the graveyard in the center of the block.
The sign directed us down the alley toward a uniformed guy in a little lighted booth. Apparently he was there to sell parking for the movie theaters nearby. He didn’t motion for us to stop.
Another right turn and the graveyard resolved ahead of us. It was a tiny one. An open mausoleum took up the east side. In the northeast corner stood a little round chapel, which the map said would be locked. On the north, a solid wall of office towers rose behind the cemetery walls.
Brian pulled his car over and we got out. He started to lead me toward the southeast corner, which they had torn up for new construction. I glanced down at the Map to the Stars’ Bones clutched in my hand.
“I think we’re going the wrong way.” I turned around 180 degrees and oriented the map. “She’s in that corner over there.”
In fact, from where we were standing, you could pick out her slot in the “Corridor of Memories.” A large bouquet of red and white rosebuds adorned the vase on the marble slab. As we drew near, I nearly tripped over a pot of purple heather on the cement floor beneath her marker. I reached out to touch the brass lettering. It said simply “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.”
For someone whose legend exploded after her death, the humble monument seemed almost insulting. I mean, I’d known in advance that she didn’t have a grand memorial like Douglas Fairbanks’ reflecting pool or Al Jolson’s three-story waterfall, but this — the bare marble without even an epitaph…
“Do you know who the blank one beside her is for?” Brian asked.
“Hugh Hefner.” I’d read somewhere that he’d paid an exorbitant bribe to be buried next to her.
There weren’t really words I wanted to say. I liked the movies of hers that I’d seen, but hadn’t troubled to track down the rest. She was dead before I was born. I felt no connection to her, other than sadness for someone who never found whatever it was she needed to live.
A fan club had dedicated a little marble bench nearby to her memory, so visitors would have a place to sit to commune with her. Permanent Californians said Marilyn’s was the most visited grave in Los Angeles. Hard to believe, after all the hour and a half of driving around it took us to find it.
The security guard strode toward us, so we turned away from Marilyn’s grave. The map said that the cemetery was open until 7:30 year ‘round, but this January night was going to be pitch black long before then.
“Do we have to leave?” I asked.
“No, we don’t lock up ‘til 6,” the guard said affably.
“Are you allowed to tell us where anyone is buried?” Brian asked.
“I don’t actually know,” the guard answered. “This is only the second time I’ve been in here.”
He rounded the low boxwood hedge behind us and stopped in front of Marilyn’s marker.
“I’d like to find Darryl Zanuck,” Brian told me. Zanuck founded 20th Century Fox, where Brian worked.
I located Zanuck on the map. As we walked across the lawn, I read off the other famous names buried here: Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne from Poltergeist, Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Eva Gabor, and Frank Zappa. There were others listed that I didn’t recognize.
Only a luminous rosy glow remained overhead as we crossed the shadowy grass. Brian bent to examine an inset plaque. The epitaph remembered one of the greatest Iranian singers ever. Although she’d been dead eleven years, potted plants completely encircled the marker.
“Is this the anniversary of her death?” I wondered.
Brian consulted the plaque again and said, “No.”
Night was falling so fast that we didn’t have time to explore. According to the map, Zanuck was buried under one of the trees. Brian and I spread out to search the rows of plaques.
I got distracted when an Iranian man climbed out of a car parked in front of the office, a low building in the southwest corner of the graveyard. He carried a potted plant over to a grave already outlined with low houseplants. When he knelt at the foot of the grave to make his offering, I turned away to give him some privacy.
It grew too dark under the trees for me to read the dark plaques set into the black grass. I found a bench beneath a towering chestnut tree and sat down. The cement was chilly through my jeans, so I huddled into my leather jacket. The tip of my nose was cold, but the hand with which I’d been holding the map was colder.
A scant handful of graves had vigil candles burning, flickering like stars in the grass. Overhead, Venus burned like an icy diamond in the deep turquoise sky. A silver rind of moon hung nearby. If I wasn’t careful where I looked, the glare of the streetlights outside the graveyard burned away my night vision. It took time for my eyes to readjust.
I watched Brian’s silhouette walking a grid amongst the graves. I marveled that he could see anything. I had a mini maglite, but it was in my backpack in the car. Besides, I felt like if it was too dark to read markers without a flashlight, it was too late to read them.
I leaned back against the tree and wondered why I hadn’t heard birdsong as the sun set. The trees around the cemetery seemed inviting enough. I’d heard mockingbirds and seen robins already in San Francisco. I knew the spring migration had already started. Strange.
It was peaceful in the graveyard. I listened to the rush of cars going by on Wilshire, the sound of life in the city. It’d been a long time since I’d been in a cemetery at night. I felt very safe, knowing that the security guard would be back to throw us out before too long.
A big boxy Lincoln pulled up behind Brian’s Pulsar. An older couple struggled out of it. They rattled keys, wielding a flashlight as they let themselves into the locked “Room of Prayer” chapel in the corner near Marilyn. I wondered what they planned to do in there after dark.
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 in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
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.
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.
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.
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.