The Disneyland of Death

Described as a theme park necropolis, Forest Lawn Cemetery created a new template for posthumous culture in North America.

Larissa Diakiw’s work can be found in Brick, Joyland, the Walrus and other printed and...

Recent Articles

 

I took the bus to Forest Lawn Memorial Park after waking up on a blow-up mattress in my friend’s tiny Koreatown apartment. I had fallen asleep to the sound of a pastor preaching in Spanish at the storefront church across the street, my first Los Angeles lullaby. His voice was distorted by a loudspeaker and had a soothing evangelical lilt. I drank tea, which I wished was coffee. I wrote down the directions via public transit to the cemetery on a piece of paper, in case my phone died. I didn’t want to get lost in the chaotic outskirts.

Forest Lawn is a cemetery in Glendale just north of LA. It has been described as a Disneyland of Death and a theme-park necropolis. It has been satirized by Evelyn Waugh, depicted by Aldous Huxley. Stars and moguls from Hollywood’s golden era are buried in its hilltop terraces. It created a new template for death culture in North America, and a business model for other cemeteries to follow.

From the bus window, I watched hairy palms rise in lonely spikes along the street. Morning smog gave the city a haunted look. The exotic cut leaves and absurd shag of the palms appeared from the mist like an idea of a place. We passed through Chinatown where a group of old men and women, bent over trundle-buggies, stood waiting in line. When the bus stopped, they slowly filed on, helping one another up the steps, around the corner, into a seat. A woman with silver hair tied in a French-roll sat next to me and asked where I was going. Glendale, I said. She said she had made the trek downtown to get food for the week, but it was difficult to carry anything, let alone the six bags she was struggling with. I asked why she didn’t use a buggy like the others. Her daughter wouldn’t let her, she said, because it made her look old.

What do cemeteries say about the living, those left to grieve a future that had once included the dead? What do these placeless places say about the cultures that create them? In the introduction to The Work of the Dead, Thomas Laqueur asks why the dead matter. Why does a culture of care for the dead extend across time, across landscapes, across different systems of belief, even to those who don’t believe? There is evidence of Neanderthal burials in French caves, and Laqueur describes atheists leaving mementos on graves with wonder. It is interesting, he notes, that without a system of ritual, without belief in an afterlife, uncared-for remains are still somehow culturally unbearable. The idea that a body would be left to rot, bones exposed, seems like an act of violence. But why does it matter? “It matters,” he writes, “because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.”

*

The founding myth of Forest Lawn has Hubert Eaton standing on a hilltop in 1912 looking down at brown fields of devil grass, wild oat sprouting at random between broken tombstones, maybe a tumbleweed blowing past his feet, and there and then he decides to take on a job as manager of the desolate graveyard. In his mind’s eye he can already see the pastoral garden he will build, “Filled with Towering Trees, Sweeping Lawns, Splashing Fountains, Singing Birds.” In the same way that middle class desire dreamed up suburbia, a place where everyone has their own patch of lawn to fortify their bungalows against real wilderness, carpets of sod would be unrolled and laid across the hills, smothering the chaparral in an act of botanical colonialism. That night, so the myth goes, Eaton stayed awake writing the “Builder’s Creed” in a hotel room where he detailed his vision for a new way of dealing with death. This manifesto is carved into a stone tablet and displayed on the grounds. Two alabaster sculptures of children holding hands, a puppy curled beside them, look up at it. Copies are available at the gift shop. “I BELIEVE IN A HAPPY ETERNAL LIFE,” it starts. It isn’t only immortality that serves as a constitutional concept here but unchecked joy. This sentiment is key to understanding the modern American memorial park. Happiness is built into every aspect of the design. When Eaton vows to create a cemetery “As Unlike Other Cemeteries as Sunshine is to Darkness, As Eternal Life is Unlike Death…” he creates a cemetery in denial, a place that banishes any sign of decay, where grief is forbidden, where pain is repressed, where no one dies.

Tombstones were removed, because Eaton felt they were too morose, and replaced with brass plaques. No new deciduous trees would be planted, because their leafless branches in winter reminded him of death. The evergreens, alternatively, were symbols of everlasting life, and planted in swaths across the property. 

Forest Lawn is 300 acres of emerald green hills enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Walls and fences are a classic feature of historical European cemeteries. They have practical applications, like keeping animals in or out, but symbolically, they define the boundaries between opposing worlds. When you step into a cemetery, leaving everyday life, strip malls and highways, taco stands and nail salons, you enter a different territory, an unstable one, a supernatural one. Somehow the cemetery is a permeable place, shared by the dead and the living, where ghosts might glimmer at night like electric filaments on the hills. Forest Lawn doesn’t feel spooky. It looks like a well manicured park, with fields and fields of brass plaques that disappear into the endless grass depending on your vantage point. It is a place where someone might go for a morning run with a dalmatian at their heels.

I walked ten minutes from the bus stop to the gate. The road in leads past a fountain and duck pond, to an empty parking lot. Canadian geese linger near the water. The entire place has a monumental scale meant to impress and dwarf the visitor. When I finally got to the crest of the hill, after walking for 45 minutes through football field after football field, past curbs with the names of burial plots stamped into the concrete, Slumberland, Lullaby Land, Dawn of Tomorrow, Vesperland, I drank some water and found myself on a bench in a courtyard fatuously named the Garden of the Mystery of Life. The bench was in a niche, surrounded by boxwood hedges. Azaleas were in bloom nearby. From that height I could see Babyland, a plot reserved for children, at the bottom of the hill, circled by a heart shaped road. I could see Glendale past the cemetery walls, buildings pale under the stark sun, spilling into the valley below.

Looking at aerial photos of fault lines in the desert is a strange and beautiful thing. From above they resemble sutures, or healed scars. As if the ground itself is trying to close over an old wound. Glendale is where the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys meet. Subterranean fault lines crisscross underneath the city. Not too far north, the San Andreas fault readies for the next imminent tectonic shift, estimated to happen anytime between tomorrow and the next decade.

The politics of water in the desert are always fierce. LA drained Owens Valley by 1926 in order to quench its thirst. During the last drought, some Californian landscapers started painting their client’s dormant grass green in order not to be shamed. To make a paradise grow in a semi arid state, massive amounts of water are needed. In 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that Forest Lawn’s then 125 acres of grass, 10,000 trees and 100,000 shrubs required an estimated 195 million gallons of water a year. The city of Glendale negotiated a deal where the cemetery would use recycled water rather than potable water, promising to supply 200 million gallons per year for 20 years, and help in the construction of a pipeline to deliver the water from a treatment plant to the cemetery. It takes a lot of water to create an oasis in a desert.

Glendale is in a chaparral ecosystem. It should be a landscape of coastal sage, drought tolerant yucca with pillars of dead flowers, silvery artemisia, Oak savannas, thickets of heathland, wildflowers. The cycle of the chaparral requires regular forest fires. Some plants need heat, smoke, or changes to the chemical composition of the soil to germinate. Some plants, called fire followers, like Phacelia, need the extra light after a canopy is burnt to grow. If you have seen Phacelia it would be hard to argue it isn’t magical. Iridescent blue whiskers poke out from clusters of bell-shaped flowers on a spiral stem. I have only seen photos. But these plants don’t fit into the nostalgic image of an imagined garden, a hegemonic Eden. California does not have the same climate as Cambridge or Milan. What did Eaton know about the ecology of the land he was building on? And where did he get his version of paradise?

*

I like to visit cemeteries when I travel. In Guadalajara, loved ones’ initials are scratched into the flesh of the cactus that define the boundaries of the grounds. In Salem, every tombstone has hand-carved Puritan poetry under a winged skull. Erosion has almost erased the words, and to read the verse, you trace your fingers across the stone, pretending it’s braille. In some areas of Istanbul marble tombstones spill between buildings, or in courtyards of homes. In Montreal tiny mausoleums in the center of Mount Royal house artifacts of past lives like baseball bats, and daguerreotypes are permanently affixed to granite tombstones, so visitors can look directly into the past. Cemeteries are like love letters to the dead. They say so much about the culture that cares for and creates them.

It was difficult for me to understand what created this place, sitting on a bench next to delicately pruned topiary, a replica of Michelangelo’s David looming larger than life from the next courtyard. His marble face eyed the hills as though x-ray vision allowed him to see skeletons under the surface of sod. But that is David before he fought Goliath, tense. A vein bulges in his neck. He readies for the fight, slingshot over his shoulder. During the earthquake in 1971 he fell off his stand and smashed to pieces. He was quickly replaced, that time without a fig leaf, then taken down after a group of concerned citizens complained about the full frontal. Now he guards the graves of Mary Pickford and Humphrey Bogart without shame.

The architecture and sculpture scattered across the grounds is a mishmash of classical European histories. There is a Tudor mortuary. Three churches on the grounds are copied from originals in Scotland and Ireland. The Great Mausoleum is based on Campo Santo in Genoa. There is a stained-glass recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and a cast of Michelangelo’s version of La Pieta. The sculpture where Mary cradles Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion. Something feels absent in these bleached recreations. The patina of age is missing. I can imagine Eaton and his team picking and choosing status symbols to fluff up the place, without any consideration of the original meaning behind the art. They seem gaudy in their perfection, insincere, out of place. This paradise is a transplant from someone else’s past.

*

Forest Lawn has been an important part of American death culture since it opened, influencing and changing how we mourn. Jessica Mitford dedicates an entire chapter to the cemetery and its management in her book The American Way of Death. Originally published in 1962, reprinted with an update in 1998, Mitford investigates how the funeral industry is embedded in entrepreneurial capitalism, detailing some of its sleazy money-making tactics. She describes how embalming is explained as a hygiene issue to grieving families, expensive and nearly non-negotiable. The World Health Organization does not agree that embalming plays any role in decreasing the spread of disease, though Mitford was led to believe by various funeral directors at the time of her reporting that it was legally required. Similarly, expensive cement vaults were said to be legally necessary so that the ground didn’t cave in, though that was also untrue.

Mitford describes Eaton as a sort of megalomaniac, and the loudspeakers that used to dot the property, reminding visitors to visit the gift shop between musical interludes, as another dark money grab. Forest Lawn management set a precedent with sales tactics and strategies to exploit the bereaved. Euphemism becomes key to sales, cloaking meaning. If you avoid calling up context or images and instead use words that are so general, so vague, they mean almost nothing, whatever you are describing remains unreal. An entire language was codified, a language that is still used. Funeral directors are instructed not to say hearse but casket-coach. They don’t say grave, they say interment space. They don’t say dirt, they say earth. They don’t say cemetery, they say memorial park. They don’t say dead body, they say mortal remains. They don’t say died, they say passed on. It is easier to up-sell a casket than a coffin. The entire cemetery relies on this distance from the facts, ushering in a new era of mourning. One where every American family should employ a cosmetician to paint lifeless faces so they might look alive again. Prices are inflated. Unusual costs stack up. And Forest Lawn is a gleaming example of cemetery as business.

*

As I was walking along a winding road towards the Great Mausoleum, thinking of celebrity, a memory came to me. When Patrick Swayze died in 2009, I visited someone in the intensive care unit at a psych ward. My friend in the hospital described her psychosis to me while we sat in plastic chairs around a wooden table. She said she was seeing faces in her food. As she spoke, she flipped between euphoria and terror. Tears rolled down her face. She told me she had been chosen. In my memory she stood up as she said this, put her open palms down, and looked across the table with such a profound longing, I will never forget it. On my way out, I crossed the path of one skeletal patient walking up and down the hallway, repeating the same rigid gestures of kneeling and opening his mouth to take eucharist. Down on his knees an invisible priest would place the wafer on his tongue. He would get up and start again, locked in a perpetual cycle of atonement. Another patient bounced on the balls of his feet and promised to skin a squirrel next time I visited. It was easy, he said, you just have to catch one.

A doctor once described brains in trauma or psychosis to me as crushed rubber balls that need time to return to their original form. The more often they are crushed the more difficult it is for them to get back to the previous shape. I wonder if this is an appropriate metaphor for someone who isn’t a clinician. What I am left with is the simpler understanding that psychosis or mania are traumatic and require healing. After I left the hospital that day, I stopped for tea at a friend’s house in Point Saint Charles. We were talking about this idea of healing when a downstairs neighbour pounded up the stairs and stormed into the room, shouting that Patrick Swayze had died. We put down our tea. The neighbour was crying. What was there to say? We went silent. It wasn’t an ideal moment for us to offer comfort. I thought about the actor, as the neighbour continued screaming, and felt nothing. I couldn’t understand where her pain was coming from. “What the fuck do I care?” I said, “Everyone dies.” Anger inhabited my body. I saw the hospital room in my mind, the colour of the walls. But she cared. “What about the people you actually know?” I said. It wasn’t that I disliked Patrick Swayze. But why was she weeping for him? Why did she care more for him? She had funneled all her emotion onto a stranger, an idea of a person, when people we knew were in the hospital. I couldn’t understand.

Mourning the death of the famous is not a new cultural phenomenon. When Victor Hugo died two million people joined his funeral procession. Even more showed up to mourn Ayatollah Khomeini. His is in the running for largest funeral in history. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and Evita Peron, had millions pass by their dead bodies to show respect. When Prince died the internet collectively mourned and celebrated him. “Purple Rain” played all summer in bars and coffee shops. I was in El Salvador when Shafik Handal, the leader of the FMLN party and former guerilla, died in 2006. I was in a small inland village, though nothing is very far from the ocean in El Salvador. The woman I was staying with, Fidelina, carted me and her entire family of nine onto a bus to go view the body in San Salvador. We waited in line for hours to have our turn to look at his open casket. The crowd was a sea of FMLN-red baseball caps and shirts, moving slowly, mournfully. Fidelina wiped her eyes with a handkerchief she kept in her bra. I had never seen a dead body before. I wasn’t sure what to expect after an embalmer and cosmetician had been at work. When our turn came, we were each given a private moment to look at the body, a confirmation, a recognition, 30 seconds. The casket was on stage in an auditorium that reminded me of the wooden stage of my high school. Shafik’s face in my memory was blue, strained, doll-like. He was dressed in military regalia, epaulettes, medals glimmering. I was surprised that I wanted to linger, to be close to him. I barely knew who he was. The feeling of collective grief was powerful. When my 30 seconds were up, I was directed off stage by soldiers flanking the coffin, holding AK47s, and I wanted more time. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

It is difficult not to ask questions about private and public grief when walking around Forest Lawn. Who has a right to mourn whom? What is the relationship between a celebrity and their fans? Or a public who has never met the person they adore? How does capital factor? Do celebrities owe nothing to their audience? What if they have transformed someone’s life? Michael Jackson is interred in a sarcophagus in the Great Mausoleum. The door is locked. You cannot visit him, unless you are a family member or on a list of ten who have their own sets of keys. None of the graves are easy to find. The cemetery management dissuades tomb tourists, or death hags, or pilgrims hunting idols. They frown on the idea that non-family members want to visit a grave, but people are resilient. You can find blogs that give vague directions, but it isn’t easy to find them once you are there. What is the point if only a few can mourn? The only celebrity grave I saw at Forest Lawn was Larry’s, the curly haired third Stooge. A wilted rose and comic book had been left as a token, leaning against his granite plaque. 

There are important people buried at Forest Lawn: Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Sam Cooke, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Nat King Cole. I try to imagine who would be compelled by these lives, and what a visit in-memoriam might mean to them. Religious impresarios of early Los Angeles spiritualism are also buried in Forest Lawn. Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who was integral in spreading yoga and meditation to the US, and wrote the cult classic Autobiography of a Yogi, is in the Great Mausoleum. The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who died in 1944, is buried on the grounds. She had one of the largest congregations in the city. They would watch in rapture as she mixed Hollywood style theatrics with Pentecostal revival. She faked her own kidnapping on Venice Beach so she could hide out with a lover, was credited with countless faith healings, and was known for her abilities to translate for people speaking in tongues. She once rode down the aisle of a church on a motorbike, dressed as a cop, screeched to a stop at the Pulpit and said “Stop, you’re speeding towards hell.” Are her followers entitled to pay homage by leaving flowers or visiting her tomb? Or was she always meant to remain separate, cloistered and elite? Her grave is easier to find than others, but the point still stands.

Maybe a piece of the mourner’s identity dies with the dead. Movies, literature, music all factor into how we build our identities. We learn how to love, what to expect from love, what love is. This is a problem when we look at who is writing these stories, what is included and what is omitted. We may spend our lives undoing that damage, but we remain affected by different iterations of our past selves. My friend’s neighbour, in her sadness over Patrick Swayze’s death, may have been grieving not Swayze, but her twelve-year-old self, sitting on the carpeted floor of her parents living room, watching movies on late night TV in flannel pyjamas, safe before her mother died, stuffing handfuls of popcorn drenched in butter into her mouth, mesmerized. The future still possible. 

*

In Eastern Orthodox graveyards, unbaptised babies are buried at the forest’s edge, not quite in consecrated ground, not quite on the unholy other side, but the limbo between. The Belfast city cemetery has a six-foot underground wall to separate Protestants from Catholics. Paupers’ graves are shared by whoever can’t pay and are left unmarked, whereas graves nearest to a church are reserved for well paying clients or the clergy. This is a factor in understanding the landscape Eaton created. Forest Lawn was segregated for decades. I messaged the cemetery’s livestream, a service offered on their website where a technician responds immediately to any questions, to ask details. What years was the Memorial Park segregated for? I wrote. The technician slowly typed out, that’s a good question, but didn’t know the answer, and referred me to an email address. No one responded to any of my several emails. Officially the Supreme court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive land deeds violated the 14th amendment in Shelley v Kramer, which would eventually be applied to burial plots.  Despite not getting any concrete dates from the technician, I do know that for decades Forest Lawn refused to bury anyone who was Black, Jewish, Chinese. The idea that a body can infect another body is a dark holdover from living society. Cities of the dead are bound by the same laws of hate and exploitation as cities of the living. This is what I walk through as I trudge naively up hills with my notebook in hand, histories of power. Paradise is defined by who is allowed in and who isn’t. It is a site of exclusion, and the cemetery is its worldly counterpart.

The gated courtyards on the hilltops are mostly locked. Several times, when I neared a locked gate, I was approached by security, who were everywhere, and asked if I needed help. Decorum is strictly regulated and carefully policed. There is a code of conduct for mourners that they agree to when they buy a plot. No balloons, spinners, ornamentation, planters, statues, or stones are permitted on the graves. Potted flowers can be no larger than eight inches in diameter. Cut flowers will be removed in three days. No one can lie down on the grass or have a picnic. I did see a family having a meal at a graveside, a Californian ritual. They were sitting in camping chairs, eating sandwiches, and sharing a bottle of soda water among the fields and fields of brass plaques, but I imagine they were told off eventually. Signs near the road warn “flower theft is a crime punishable by imprisonment.” Security guards ride around on golf carts watching you carefully, noting you as you walk, even more so at the crests of the hills, like an economic reflection of LA itself. I thought maybe I could convince someone to let me inside one of the locked courtyards, but they worked in pairs, so I didn’t try. I joked about the weather to make them smile, hoping they didn’t kick me out.

When I finally got back to the wrought iron gates, I wasn’t sure where I had been. I felt unmoved, exhausted. Forest Lawn’s marketing claims the gates are the biggest of their kind in the world, 10,000 pounds, 25 feet high, 80 feet wide, larger than the gates at Buckingham Palace, or Topkapi. Laqueur suggests that the dead inhabit two distinct cultural landscapes. The graveyard, where their physical bodies or ashes are interred, and an imagined world, a shadowland without maps or clear geography, heaven, hell, purgatory, the void on the other side of the River Styx, potential and emptiness all at the same time. The graveyard offers a dangerous window into the other side. It is important to know when you have entered and when you have left. One superstition says that when leaving a cemetery, you should touch the iron gate, so any clinging ghosts are stopped from following you. I reach up to feel the metal as I pass. It is cold under my palm.

Next

‘People Live Before and After Violence’: An Interview with Marlon James
The author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf on the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, Die Hard and Vin…

Previous

Toward My Own Definition of Disability
Growing up, I resisted identifying as disabled. Now, I’m seeking to better understand the label and the community…