Hollywood Forever was filled with entertainment legends—both living and dead. The living were at a star-studded memorial on May 26 for Soundgarden frontman and grunge rock icon Chris Cornell, who had taken his own life a week before.
On chairs set in the manicured grass, Cornell’s family and friends—including Brad Pitt, Lisa Marie Presley, and Courtney Love—listened as Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, who would take his own life only a few months later, sang the immortal Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
For one guest, Linda Ramone, the widow of legendary rocker Johnny Ramone, this was one of many pilgrimages to the famed cemetery. “I go all the time,” she says.
Over the past two decades, these scenes have become increasingly common as Hollywood Forever—once known primarily as the eternal home of old-school movie stars such as Marion Davies and Tyrone Power—has welcomed more and more hard rocking musical legends to its increasingly crowded grounds.
The trend started around 2001, when Bianca Halstead, electric frontwoman of the LA girl group Betty Blowtorch, was killed by a drunk driver in New Orleans. Her family buried her ashes in her favorite vintage Kiss lunchbox, under a stone which reads “Born to love. Lived to rock.”
In 2002, legendary wild man Dee Dee Ramone was quietly interred at Hollywood Forever, with friends and bandmates including Johnny Ramone in attendance. His wife Linda says it wasn’t the first time the tight-knit couple visited the famous cemetery.
“We went to Hollywood Forever in 2001 for Jacqui Getty’s Halloween extravaganza party,” she recalled over email. “That was the first time we had ever gone there. Johnny loved the Halloween party at a cemetery. Loved it.” Johnny also loved all the old movie stars that had been buried at the cemetery, a roster that includes legends such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.
Johnny had been battling prostate cancer since 2000. As the disease progressed, he and Linda discussed how he would like to be remembered. They decided on a flamboyant memorial at Hollywood Forever.
“We weren’t really inspired by Dee Dee being there, but Johnny thought it would be good for Ramones fans to have a place where they could go visit the two of them,” Linda Ramone says. “Johnny wanted his own space at the cemetery. Dee Dee would have his space, and Johnny picked his spot in the Garden of Legends. The Garden of Legends was already called that, and that’s where Hattie McDaniel was buried, but Johnny was next. So they’re close, but they’ve each got their own area.”
Johnny Ramone died on September 15, 2004. Four months later, a four-foot statue of him playing his beloved guitar was unveiled at the cemetery (his ashes stayed with Linda).
The ceremony, attended by Anthony Kiedis, Pete Yorn, and Eddie Vedder, among others, was a celebration of the man and the power of his fame.
“This statue was really important to him,” friend Lisa Marie Presley said after the ceremony, according to Rolling Stone. “When we drove up and I saw the cars, the people, the cameras and the fans, I went, ‘Johnny would be happier than a pig in slop right now. He's just grinning like there's no tomorrow.’”
It was Johnny’s memorial in the Garden of Legends that really transformed Hollywood Forever into rock’s newest pilgrimage spot. Fans began to flock to the cemetery, to pay tribute to not one, but two of the legendary Ramones. In honor of Johnny—an avid horror and experimental movie fan—Linda teamed with Cinespia to put on the annual Johnny Ramone Tribute. The yearly celebration, which features cult movies, art and food, benefits the Johnny and Linda Ramone Foundation, which funds cancer research.
“Everyone loves it. Everyone loves going,” Linda says of Hollywood Forever. “I’ve been told by many people that people come to the Johnny Ramone Tribute and meet up and talk about starting bands together. People have told Howie Pyro [who DJs the annual Johnny Ramone Tribute] that, and they always say, ‘we’ll see you next year.’ People love it. I love doing the tribute, and I think it means a lot. I like seeing the generations of kids that come. We have a lot of young kids that come, and it’s great to see everyone wearing Ramones shirts.”
It's Hollywood Forever’s unique business model, as a cemetery and events venue, that makes it the perfect eternal spot for the open-sourced musicians of the past 40 years.
On the site Rock N Roll Bride, one punk rock couple, Poli and Mike, detail their wedding at Hollywood Forever. “I pulled up in the venue’s 1930s Rolls Royce hearse where I was greeted by my father right in front of Johnny Ramone’s memorial statue,” Poli writes. “Fittingly, this was underscored by the Ramones’ She’s The One. Our officiant was Bay Area ska-punk legend Mike Park.”
This openness not only allows fans to integrate their heroes into their lives, it also offers a new way to celebrate the dead. When EDM megastar and Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella’s mother Irene Guadagno died in 2015, he honored her in the way he knew she’d love—with a graveyard rave. He wrote on his blog:
Mama Irene herself would mark this occasion with a celebration so I’m going to do something special to honor her memory and give those people whose lives she touched a chance to share another wonderful moment with her—in true Mama Irene style. Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It’ll be everything she would have wanted—family, friends, music, dancing, good food, and lots of laughter.
Today, her joyful statue graces the Garden of Legends, a far cry from the somber memorials of earlier celebrities.
Since Johnny’s memorial was unveiled, he has been joined by more rock legends. In 2008, Gidget Gein, the original bassist for Marylin Manson, fatally overdosed. His friends put on a fundraiser to have a memorial bench placed in his honor at Hollywood Forever, even though his ashes were buried in Florida.
That same year, Traci Michaelz of the glam rock band Peppermint Creeps was interred at the cemetery. And, of course, in May 2017, Chris Cornell was memorialized near his mentor in the Garden of Legends. After his famous friends had left the service honoring his life, his fans poured into the cemetery, to have an impromptu memorial of their own. According to Billboard’s Eve Barlow:
50 or so fans are gathered around Cornell's stone, sitting, standing, praying. Some hold their phones, some hold potted plants, some hold their children. A distressed woman sings "Say Hello 2 Heaven" by Temple of the Dog. "I never wanted to write these words down for you, with the pages of phrases of all the things we'll never do/ So I blow out the candle, and I put you to bed…" she sings, in hushed tones, almost hymnal. She wails and weeps. Others follow, as though singing the songs with Cornell for the last time. Nobody can do them justice, of course. As they try to reach Cornell's signature and impossibly high notes, they fail. Suddenly laughter breaks out.
It seems likely Cornell will eventually be joined by even more rock ’n’ roll legends.
In 2007, indie rocker Morrissey spoke of his interest in being interred there. “I like it…I stumbled across Johnny Ramone’s stone—I thought his stone was very nicely placed,” he told LA Weekly in 2007. “And I sat there for a very long time, and I felt quite good about it. I felt it was a nice position, and it was nice that his bones were under the soil that I was sitting on. So, yeah. That’s my spot. And I have considered putting money down for reserving a spot.” (He got the details wrong, but the sentiment was true.)
For Linda Ramone, Hollywood Forever continues to be a place of solace and celebration, a place where the music stays alive.
“Johnny would love it,” she says. “He wanted his statue to be the most visited statue out of anywhere—as big as Jim Morrison’s grave is in Paris. He always wanted people to come visit.”