Traveling across Los Angeles at most times of the day has the helpless agony of crossing into Hades: by car, you circle seven times on the river of hatred; by train, you're rowed on the river of forgetfulness; on bike, the river of pain.
Los Angeles, for many decades, was a place for ambitious absurdities, and so we live among real-estate-advertisements-turned-American-deities rising from the mountains, ribbons of concrete unwinding in the sky, stripmalls built around restaurants designed to look like hats, mechanical ballerina clowns looming above our heads, other people’s visions all over a spacious, flat place still governed so stubbornly by Midwestern conservatism and a Wild West refusal of community. Angelenos are surrounded most of the time by the evidence of human civilization—buildings, foreign palm trees, power lines, superfast robot exoskeletons—and less often by fellow humans. We meet each other sometimes in the 16-million-year-old mountains, with our dogs.
"The world seemed a myth, a transparent plane," Arturo Bandini thinks to himself as he walks the Long Beach Pike amusement park minutes before the 1933 earthquake hits in John Fante's novel Ask the Dust, "and all things upon it were here for only a little while … and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all, we approached living, but we never achieved it. We are going to die. Everybody was going to die."
Sometimes I drive home late at night down a wide boulevard, the traffic lights in a bokeh accordion as far as I can see, and I think maybe I've died already, t-boned by a drunk driver, and been reborn exactly as I was, behind the wheel of my car heading west down Beverly. It's got to be about the dumbest theory of reincarnation ever imagined, but how would I know? Everything feels so good here and there's so little way to measure time passing, except in the slow breakdown of your body.
(Come to think of it, the Eagles wrote a song about this.)
Before Disneyland opened in 1955, the biggest tourist attraction in greater Los Angeles was supposedly a cemetery. Actually, it was a memorial park. Going by the stories, its creator, Hubert Eaton, had at least as much vision and ambition as Walt Disney, who was a friend and honorary pallbearer at his funeral, and, a short time later, an eternal interee at the wonderland he built. (Disney wasn't actually cryogenically frozen, he was cremated.)
"I suppose in order to appreciate this place … to truly appreciate it, I mean, I shall have to visit Forest Lawn," a cluelessly snotty Englishman says in Eve Babitz's 1974 book Eve's Hollywood, throwing Babitz into a rage. "No, it's not Los Angeles, it's English … All English people who come to L.A. always head right to Forest Lawn and go nuts. There's something about it that gets them. I've never been there."
The ordinary Californian who knows it only by hearsay dismisses it as he dismisses Hollywood and smog, considering it merely one aspect of modern life on the West Coast,
the literary biographer Frank MacShane wrote in 1961.
The ordinary citizen is therefore displeased with Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, since it was they who first presented Forest Lawn to the world as something typical of California.
The first Forest Lawn Memorial Park sprawls across soothing green hills at the border between Los Angeles and its suburb Glendale, behind the biggest wrought-iron gates in the world—twice as wide and five feet higher than the ones at Buckingham Palace. The Beverly Pantheon in Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Whispering Pines in Waugh's The Loved One are barely parodies: The tweely reproduced English country churches, the copious statuary, the music piped in from unlocatable speakers, and the creepy frankness of the employees, who speak a cult language where "loved ones" are displayed in country club-like "slumber rooms" before their "inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement." Everything is carried out precisely to the desires of a beloved leader, who Waugh calls "The Dreamer." There are no tombstones.
The actual story of Forest Lawn has been published many times, mostly by Forest Lawn or with its assistance, from Eaton's biography in 1959 to Forest Lawn: The First 100 Years, in 2006. Every version has roughly the same set of facts, all speak of Hubert Eaton as a man who changed the world by changing the cemetery business, and most begin on a hill in Glendale, California, on January 1, 1917.
Eaton was born into a strict Christian family in Liberty, Missouri, on June 3, 1881, in the last year of Jesse James's life. Jesse and his brother Frank had been raised nearby and their father, Robert James, was a founder of William Jewell College, where Eaton's father taught science. (Liberty was also home to the Clay County Savings Association, which became, in 1866, the first U.S. bank to be robbed in daylight during peacetime; the Jameses were probably involved.) When Hubert was a teenager, his father died in Cairo on what was supposed to be a restorative trip to the Holy Land (today he lies in Forest Lawn). Hubert went on to William Jewell himself, where he developed his salesmanship popularizing the basketball team, which in 1899 was playing a new and still very uncool ("ladylike") sport.
Eaton graduated with a degree in chemistry and went to work for a mining concern in Montana, where he worked quickly up the ladder before leaving in search of a better opportunity. In 1909, he became general manager and metallurgist at a silver vein in Nevada that'd been discovered by his cousin, Joseph Eaton. They pulled a million dollars of ore out of the mine in the first year, and built roads and housing and a new smelter in preparation for an even bigger future, and then one day the vein was gone. A fault in the mountain slipped, cutting off all that silver. They spent their million dollars and more than a year trying to find it again, but it was lost to them for good.
Wrapping up the silver mine business in St. Louis in 1911, Eaton visited an old friend who told him about a man named C.B. Sims who'd had the idea to sell cemetery lots "before need," that is, to living people for their own use, rather than to grieving successors. It was unheard of at the time, only about a hundred years ago; this was the last moment before American capitalism got to where it'd sell us a rectangle of land where we could put our own dead bodies, for whenever the time came that we'd need it.
Eaton tried out a few sales door to door and found that Christians seemed interested, and that's how he ended up in the burial business.
Meanwhile, a little town called Tropico had just incorporated to the north of Downtown LA. In 1904, the Pacific Electric streetcar line had reached the area. In 1906, the Tropico Land & Improvement Company inaugurated a cemetery, but no one seemed to want to bury their loved ones there. In 1912, they hired Sims and Eaton. According to the hagiographies, Eaton didn't actually like selling before-need plots as investments, the way Sims had been doing.
He based his system on a purely moral concept—a cemetery is no place for financial finagling, but a place where one should be able to make arrangements that would eliminate some of the most difficult problems that arise at time of death.
Business was up and down over the next few years: Eaton and Sims split and then World War I began, a frost destroyed the citrus crops, the Los Angeles Investment Company failed, bankrupting thousands. But by 1916, lots were selling well enough that Eaton decided he wanted a piece of the park. When the directors turned him down, he and a few other men took an option on 100 acres in Eagle Rock to start their own cemetery, which was all he had to do to change the directors’ minds. Through a complicated series of corporate acquisitions, he ended up the next year as manager and president of Forest Lawn.
And on January 1, 1917, he stood at the top of a hill in the cemetery and looked out at his new domain in disgust. Eaton's biographer, the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, has the purplest prose of all the storytellers, so here's her version of how it went that day:
His first New Year's resolution had been to turn down the job as manager of Forest Lawn Cemetery. What an idea for a mining engineer!
[J]ust before he could turn away, his heart was flooded with a miraculous compassion that held him spellbound, shaken to his prosaic, sensible, firmly-planted-on-the-ground boots.
Every man ever born into the world must meet the moment symbolized by those tombstones. As a mourner. As the one to be mourned. This was the one thing a man couldn't duck for his family, his friends, himself. Somebody ought to do something kind, helpful, Christian about it.
… Couldn't there be a beautiful passage to eternity instead of a little piece of hell?
These thoughts held the young man motionless on the hillside, they were completely new and unfamiliar to him.
The rest of the moment was mostly Eaton recalling quotations by Milton, Shelley, and Robert Green Ingersoll, apparently. The upshot was that—decades after Boston's Mount Auburn became the first park-like cemetery in America—he decided he'd create a park-like cemetery in the foothills of Tropico, with pretty architecture and landscaping and art, bronze plaques instead of tombstones, a cemetery "dedicated not to death but to eternal life."
That was the moment Eaton became "The Builder," and "The Builder's Creed," dated January 1, 1917, is etched on a building-high slab beside the Great Mausoleum, above a statue of little children gazing up in awe.
I believe in a happy Eternal Life.
I believe those of us who are left behind should be glad in the certain belief that those gone before, who believed in Him, have entered into that happier life.
I believe, most of all, in a Christ that smiles and loves you and me.
I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, not a beginning. They have consequently become unsightly stone yards, full of inartistic symbols and depressing customs; places that do nothing for humanity save a practical act, and that not well.
I therefore prayerfully resolve on this New Year's Day, 1917, that I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as eternal life is unlike death. ...
He renamed the cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, to start. And then he found out that people were pretty attached to the idea of tombstones—customers were walking out when they found out they couldn't have them. He made the first monument-less sale by giving the man 10 percent off.
Eaton also wanted to put "everything in one place," to make it as easy as possible to send a loved one off into eternal life. A crematory opened in October 1917, along with a small chapel; the first church at Forest Lawn opened the next Mother's Day—the Little Church of the Flowers is based on the village church in Buckinghamshire where Thomas Gray wrote "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," except that its interior walls are lined with gardens, to make it feel more "alive." In 1920, Forest Lawn opened its Great Mausoleum, "inspired" by the Campo Santo in Genoa, and soon after that a Tudor-style administration building and flower shop based on the country home of the Earls of Northampton in Warwickshire.
In the early 1930s, Eaton went to battle against the local undertakers so that he could open a mortuary. There'd never been a mortuary on cemetery grounds before, which is how the morticians liked it; the fight roped in the city council, the state legislature, the State Board of Funeral Directors, and the Great Northern Casket Company of Portland, Oregon, before Eaton got his mortuary, and everything was in one place on New Year's Day, 1934.
All that was left was the art. In 1915, Eaton had gone to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and fallen in love with a bronze statue called Duck Baby, a fat little girl standing with a duck under each arm. He couldn't convince the board to put up the $800 for a casting, so he used funds he controlled for maintenance and improvements, and he brought a copy to Forest Lawn, where he imagined parents and children would come forever after to be delighted by it. (Today, it sits next to a pond filled with ducks and swans.)
After that, it was exquisite marble replicas of Michelangelo's Moses, commissioned for Pope Julius II’s tomb, and his Twilight and Dawn, Night and Day, and Madonna and Child from the Medici Chapel in Florence. A nearly 17-foot-tall David covered by a fig leaf that Eaton disliked, which toppled in an earthquake in 1971; a new version stands fig-less. A mosaic reproduction of John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, three times the size of the original in 700,000 pieces of Venetian glass tile. George Washington, by John Quincy Adams Ward, with seven huge links of chain that were strung across the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War at his feet.
The Wee Kirk o' the Heather, where Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were married in 1940, modeled after the village church in Glencairn, Scotland. The Church of the Recessional, inspired by Rudyard Kipling's church in Rottingdean, England—St. Johns wrote that she'd seen a letter that Kipling's daughter wrote to Eaton, saying "I look upon it as a link of real understanding between our two countries."
And Eaton's grand trio from the life of Christ. The Crucifixion by Polish painter Jan Styka, 195 feet long and 45 feet high, which debuted in Warsaw in 1897 and was then lost on a trip to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Eaton spent years tracking it down to a basement in Chicago. At Forest Lawn, he built a hall just to display it, and, eventually, The Resurrection, by American Robert Clark. Eaton held contests and scoured Europe for the perfect depiction of Christ's rise before he finally found Clark to paint it for him—he wanted "a strong Christ, readily accepting the challenge of death, but sure of his ultimate victory over it."
In 1924, on a trip to Italy, Eaton had seen both the fading original of Da Vinci's The Last Supper and a breathtaking stained glass window in the Cathedral of St. Francis. He went to Perugia to find the glassmaker, a woman named Rosa Caselli Moretti, whose family had been making stained glass for centuries, and he asked her to recreate The Last Supper, as it was in its best days, for his Great Mausoleum. It took seven years, and the panel with Judas on it broke over and over again, but in 1931, Eaton had his window hung in the Memorial Court of Honor, which he saw as the Westminster Abbey of Southern California. You can't buy a plot in the Memorial Court of Honor, you can only be placed there by the Forest Lawn Council of Regents—they’ve given the honor to Gutzon Borglum, who carved Mount Rushmore; Jan Styka; Carrie Jacobs-Bond, who wrote the song "I Love You Truly"; and, of course, Hubert Eaton. ("In the construction of Immortal Fame you need first of all a cosmic shamelessness," Umberto Eco wrote of both Westminster and the Memorial Court of Honor in Travels in Hyperreality.)
Supposedly the only sad Jesus in all of Forest Lawn is a replica of Michelangelo's Pietà, set against a wall perpendicular to The Last Supper. Forest Lawn is not formally a Christian cemetery, but it is thoroughly Christian, in the image of Eaton's very American brand of Christianity: Early on, he horrified a group of Italian sculptors by asking them to create "a Christ figure that exuded joy." (There couldn’t be a more appropriate final resting place for Aimee Semple McPherson, the most clever, shameless, and famous celebrity evangelist of the 1920s and 1930s, than a marble sarcophagus just below the Great Mausoleum, watched over by kneeling marble angels.)
Eaton's biography is called First Step Up Toward Heaven, but Forest Lawn doesn't often mention any specific afterlife; its rhetoric centers on "eternity," the intimation that the memorial park's green lawns, religious art, and absence of unsightly tombstones make it so glorious that it can grant immortality to the dead. (St. Johns wrote that that day on the hill "revealed to [Eaton] a vision that would revolutionize, civilize, and Christianize all this and show us how to rob the grave of its ugly victory.")
Eaton's wish was that Forest Lawn would be "a place for the living," and today most American cemeteries—including the 10 other Forest Lawn locations around Southern California, now run by Eaton's great-nephew—are too, in that they are places for the pre-dead, places to flatter us about how we might be remembered, to overestimate how kind eternity might be to us.
When Eaton took over Forest Lawn, he toured the great cemeteries, looking to find out why, according to The Forest Lawn Story,
most of the interment spots in the United States were places to be shunned—looked upon as civic liabilities where they should be civic assets. He wanted to find out why even the most beautiful cemeteries were visited by people mainly from a sense of duty, why most cemeteries were so ugly, and why they didn't have architects and landscape engineers connected with them.
It's an obviously silly question. People don't like visiting cemeteries because they throw a wrench in the primary human project: to forget that we're temporary, that all of this is temporary.
Babitz was right that the English are obsessed with Forest Lawn, but they're obsessed with its Los Angelesness (and, LA being the terminus of America, its Americanness): the transparent, earnest lie of it: the green lawns in an arid land, the brand new marble masterpieces plucked from centuries of European history, the triumphant Christ, the stubborn insistence that death can be pleasant, that it doesn't even have to be an ending at all.
By her next book, Slow Days, Fast Company, Babitz seems to have arrived there too: "L.A. didn't invent eternity. Forest Lawn is just an example of eternity carried to its logical conclusion. I love L.A. because it does things like that."
Culturally, Babitz was raised far away from Glendale, in Hollywood, surrounded by artists and musicians and German intellectuals; her own parents, the artist Mae Babitz and violinist Sol Babitz, are at Hollywood Forever, the only cemetery in Hollywood. Hollywood Forever tells a different parable about Los Angeles. To the north, its wrought-iron gates frame Mount Lee and the Hollywood Sign; poking over its southern wall, the Paramount water tower marks the studio lot that sits on cemetery land sold off in 1917.
Forest Lawn is too big, too sacred and serious. Hollywood Forever, flat and motley and real as the surrounding neighborhood, actually feels like a place for the living, and for those who have lived.
William Mulholland, the ruthless and respected engineer who brought a water supply to Los Angeles at the expense of the people in the Owens Valley, is in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn. Griffith J. Griffith, who gave himself the title "colonel" and gave Los Angeles its great Griffith Park, was shunned after shooting his wife in a paranoid and possibly drunken fugue, and now lies at Hollywood Forever beneath a priapic monument.
Hollywood Forever was founded in 1899, and buried its first body (a local blacksmith's wife) in 1901. (A history provided by the cemetery says it "ushered in a revolutionary concept in the cemetery industry—the lawn park.") Things really got going in the 1910s, when the movie people showed up, and they got really juicy in 1939, when an ex-con named Jules Roth took over. In the 1920s, Roth had served as vice president and "right-hand man" to the owner of Julian Petroleum, a messy scam of an operation that ended with all the principals dead, in jail, fleeing the country, or some combination. Roth went to Canada, where he was eventually arrested on 39 counts, then snuck through a door at his court hearing and left for New York. Finally he was arrested, sent to Los Angeles, convicted on 21 counts, and sentenced to nine to 95 years in San Quentin. He was paroled in 1937, and in 1939, he wrangled a controlling stake in what was then Hollywood Memorial Park, where his parents were buried.
Roth was an awful cemetery manager. He bought a tax-deductible yacht for scattering ashes in the ocean, which he mostly used for parties; he installed a wet bar in his office; he picked an employee to serve as an informant; he refused to allow actress Hattie McDaniel to be buried at the cemetery, despite her last wishes, because she was black; and he allegedly siphoned off several million dollars from the endowment fund over the decades and sold off statuary from the mausoleum. After an employee flagrantly misunderstood Roth's wishes and informed the IRS about the yacht racket, he sold off most of the cemetery land along Santa Monica Boulevard to pay the tax bill, and now Hollywood Forever is lined in front with auto shops and a Little Caesar's.
Somehow, Roth held onto the rest of the cemetery until 1997, the year before his death, when he finally bankrupted the place. Like a lot of the rest of Hollywood at the time, it was in shambles; the ponds had turned to swamps and workers abandoned building projects without bothering to take down the scaffolding. No one wanted to bury anyone at Hollywood Forever, but there were plenty of people who were willing to sleep or buy drugs or cruise for sex there.
In 1998, a couple of brothers named Tyler and Brent Cassity bought the whole thing out of bankruptcy for $375,000. They'd grown up in the funeral business in Missouri, and a New York Times article from 2002 claims they were an inspiration for Six Feet Under. They put millions into Hollywood Forever, fixing the landscaping, tearing down walls, and installing multimedia consoles where biographies of the deceased now play on a loop forever. A new sales staff did quick business selling plots to Armenian and Russian families in the neighborhood.
Hollywood Forever is surrounded by a special LA kind of ugliness, but inside its walls, it's lush and colorful and crowded and fun. Forest Lawn has to approve all monuments; "We let you do whatever you want," Karie Bible said on a recent tour through Hollywood Forever, where she’s been leading tours since 2002, always wearing a smart black dress and carrying a parasol.
Hollywood Forever has a pyramid tomb. It has a neoclassical mausoleum (for heir and Los Angeles Philharmonic founder William Andrews Clark Jr.) on an island in the middle of its lake, which seems wildly unfair, but looks terrific. There are seven-pronged Russian Orthodox crosses and Armenian tombstones with portraits etched in them and flower gardens planted on top of the graves. The graphic artist Carl Bigsby and his wife Constance have a tombstone topped with a scale version of an Atlas Pioneer rocket, for no particular reason; Constance's side also has humanity's best-ever epitaph: "too bad, we had fun." There's a statue of Johnny Ramone playing the guitar at his grave. Don Adams, TV's Maxwell Smart, talks on a shoe phone on a plaque at his. Mel Blanc has "That's all folks" on his marker. Douglas Fairbankses Sr. and Jr. lie together in a tomb among columns at the end of a long reflecting pool (when son joined father, the epitaph "Good night, sweet prince" was pluralized).
"The ultimate way in this town to cheat death is to become famous,'' Tyler told the New York Times in 2002.
Hollywood Forever is so in love not with death, but with the formerly alive, that it has cenotaphs—gravesites without bodies beneath—for Jayne Mansfield; McDaniel; Terry, the dog who played Toto. The niches for ashes in the mausoleum are stuffed with memorabilia: David White, Larry Tate of Bewitched, has photos of him with his son, a prop from his show, and a résumé of all things. Rudolph Valentino's corner crypt has famously drawn a mysterious Lady in Black every year since his death; the original died in 1984 and there have been many since; today Bible plays the part, because, she says, it's Hollywood tradition.
In the summer, there are movies projected on a huge white wall of the mausoleum, and everyone spreads out hummus and wine on blankets and watches Chinatown or True Romance. There's a Day of the Dead party that last year had 40,000 partiers, and there are concerts—when Belle and Sebastian played Hollywood Forever in 2010, they opened, naturally, with "Sukie in the Graveyard."
At some point, Brent got out of Hollywood Forever, and in 2010, he and father Doug, along with several other partners in their National Prearranged Services company, were indicted on dozens of counts of fraud, accused of illegally taking millions out of "before need" trusts—basically running a Ponzi scheme on funeral plots. One of Doug Cassity's big purchases was a 36-foot boat. Tyler Cassity was not indicted.
Forest Lawn, Hollywood Forever, the sacred and the profane, they're Disneylands of death—Jean Baudrillard wrote of the theme park that
This world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere—that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness.
These "memorial parks," they distract from the truth that Los Angeles is one great burial field, built on a bubbling sea of carbon, the remains of saber-tooth cats, mollusks, mammoths, earlier humans. And on top of that, the villages of the Tongva and Chumash, and on top of that, wide boulevards that persist as gravestones for dead streetcar lines and stripmalls that entomb restaurants shaped like hats.
The immortal dead aren’t buried in any memorial park, they dot the city as landmarks: Peg Entwistle crumpled below the "H" in the Hollywood Sign, Marilyn Monroe in her bed in Brentwood, Elizabeth Short in two pieces in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Leonard Deadwyler behind the wheel of his car somewhere between Watts and LA General Hospital, Biggie at a red light by the Petersen Automotive Museum, Nicole Brown in her condo on South Bundy Drive, Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, Latasha Harlins by the counter in Empire Liquor.
For me, though, Los Angeles has two great monuments that tell the truth about human mortality.
Down in Watts, Simon Rodia's glittering spires represent the highest use of a human life: to spend all your extra hours making something beautiful out of junk and dust, so strong that 10,000 pounds of force couldn’t pull it down, and then leave it behind when you're done, for a place where the people could use it.
And up on Sixth Street, at LACMA, a 340-ton boulder balanced across a concrete trench. It’s one of the biggest things ever moved in modern times. For months in 2012, we talked about this boulder, which fell off a quarry wall in Riverside years ago, and for 11 nights in March that year, we watched a trailer carry it through the streets of Southern California. Power lines and traffic lights were moved, strangers made friends on the sidewalks, it was the only thing on the local news, it trended on Twitter, the crowds booed when a car had to be towed out of the way, it felt like ambitious absurdity had come back to the city. Jesus was there—he's a guy with a beard and a long white robe who you just see at the Rite-Aid at Sunset and Fairfax sometimes.
And then a couple months later, the boulder was placed on the trench, and it became Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, and no one really liked it that much, although it shows up on Instagram all the time with someone underneath pretending to hold it up. But it'll be there for a few million more years anyway, after the concrete buckles and it slams down into the trench, after the travertine slides off the Resnick Pavilion and smashes Robert Irwin's palm tree installations, after the steel's crumpled and the windows have shattered in every office building on Wilshire, years after the light poles of Urban Light have rusted and rotted, when the land is so barren that the smell from the tar pits next door will be stifling, if the tar pits haven't been on fire for a thousand years already. Long after we're gone.
Editor: Sara Polsky