For centuries, men worshipped stars of the celestial variety. Lately, however, star adoration has become a more localized phenomenon, centered in the City of Angels. Star Maps guide us to their homes. In countless magazines and television show we discover what they wear, what they think, what brand of car they drive and which diet plan they swear by. We seem to know more about them than we know about ourselves. Yet stars remain elusive. We yearn to rub elbows with them only to find ourselves walking in their shadow.
All is not lost, however. There is one place in Tinseltown that’s got more stars than Spago’s on Oscar Night and you don’t need a reservation or an invitation. You won’t find the address anywhere on a Star Map yet it lies in plain view, there for all to see, at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, between Gower Street and Van Ness Avenue. The place is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, home to 101 stars and notables from the Golden Age of the movies. They’re all here, the gangsters and the molls, the sirens and the moguls, the bit players and the leading women and men, resting forever in landscaped tranquility. Each grave tells a story in what amounts to no less than the grand narrative of Hollywood of the bygone era, with divas like Jayne Mansfield, comedians like Mel Blank, studio founders like Harry Cohn, screen mobsters like Edward G. Robinson, and their real-life star-struck counterparts like Bugsy Siegel.
Founded in 1899, the cemetery sprawls over 30 acres of land, dotted with stately oaks, weeping willows, and iconic palm trees. White marble mausoleums and Egyptian-style obelisks are framed by patches of rose bushes and lily ponds whose shores are home to a squabbling population of ducks. Like the North Star that used to guide sailors on the high seas, the Hollywood sign looms overhead like a bizarre navigational landmark en route to the heavens. Stately wrought iron gates serve as the entrance to the park-like spread, hemmed on two sides by a pair of white marble edifices – the Abbey of the Psalms and the Cathedral Mausoleum – where the ashes of the grateful dead pass eternity in little brass jars stashed behind glass.
Stars are not the only denizens of the cemetery nor, in fact, its predominant population. For well over a century, the cemetery has been a final resting place of choice for exponents of the old world – Jews, Armenians, and even Orthodox Russians. The cemetery is ever diversifying to accommodate new clientele. A painted wooden pagoda presides over a tiny patch of land that serves as the final resting place for several dozens immigrants from Thailand, their graves marked with obelisks covered with multi-colored mosaic and tiny mirrors. And like everything else around it, the cemetery has joined the digital age. The funeral chapel is equipped for worldwide webcasts and interactive LifeStory tributes which make it possible to expand the grieving circle to family and friends anywhere in the world who cannot attend in person. And for those who wish for more than a gravestone to remember the dearly departed, the cemetery now runs a video library filled with films recorded by the deceased shortly before their death. In this sepulchral casting call, everyone gets to be a star of their own feature film, preserved on tape for all eternity as they share a message of love and wisdom with future generations.
The cemetery provides its clients with every conceivable option as far burial and interment are concerned. In addition to the classic six feet under solution, the cemetery has built crypts and mausoleums in every conceivable shape to store the ashes of the departed. Each crypt gallery bears a name that is meant to imply peace and tranquility but the architecture of the place invites a rather different comparison. Because the many tiered marble crypts with the names of the dead inscribed on little brass plaques resembles nothing so much as filing cabinets where the remains had been stashed away for safe keeping. The effect is strengthened because some of the glass cabinets resemble bookshelves with the brass urns on display behind the glass, done up as Grecian vases and encyclopedia-like tomes. A demented sort of ingenuity is at work here as funereal alchemy seems to transform the flesh and blood of the dead into a well-groomed library of classics.
The body may perish but vanity lives on, in a desperate bid to attain a measure of immortality with a bit of gold leaf and black marble. Nothing tells us so much about the dead as their choice of grave markers. Here’s a once in a lifetime chance for ordinary mortals to outshine the stars. We may not look as good as them in this life but when it comes to gearing up for the afterlife, it’s a whole different story. In some cases, the final resting places of the stars is in keeping with their grandiose stature. The director Cecil B. DeMille has been laid to rest alongside his family in dual marble sarcophagi befitting a Roman general. The actor and founder of United Artist, Douglas Fairbanks’ Jr., lies in state at the foot of a long reflecting pool, framed by marble columns and flower-filled stone vases, at the top of a pedestal and safely above ground trod by the living. But the graves of other notables may surprise the visitor who’s come expecting to find lofty monuments and pink marble mausoleums. The grave of the actor Adolph Menjou, the dapper star of more than 140 movies, is marked with a simple brass epitaph, laid at the foot of a cypress tree. Mel Blanc, the man of a thousand voices, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig among them, lies under a modest slab of granite, marked by the Star of David and the fitting epitaph, “That’s All, Folks.” The legendary French bard Joe Dassin’s grave is so understated that it is almost impossible to find in a dense cluster of graves in the Jewish side of the cemetery. His gravestone says simply, “Joseph Dassin 1938-1980″ and it is left to the visitors’ imagination to fill in the rest. The great silent film heartthrob and Cassanova, Rudolph Valentino, is buried in a wall shelf with a dozen other people, humble cast bronze inscription marking his final resting place.
By contrast, the graves of the recent immigrants, whether Russian or Armenian, are often a triumph of nouveau riche ostentatiousness and pretentious bad taste. No expense has been spared in erecting these hulking memorials of polished black marble and gold, replete with statues, bas-reliefs, and life-size photos etched in stone. Like Egyptian pharaohs, the immigrant success stories are not shy about memorializing their status. Instead of angels and weeping Madonnas marking the grave to inspire thoughts of the hereafter, however, these modern monuments to the dead feature chiseled representations of luxury cars, designer accessories, and expensive clothes. If you can’t be buried with your beloved Mercedes, these gravestones seem to suggest, at least take a little stone replica of it with you into the afterlife. Having set out to be buried alongside the great stars, the new arrivals seem intent on eclipsing their neighbors with all the pomp and circumstance money can buy.
The cemetery is open 8:30 am – 5 pm Monday through Friday and till 4:30 pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free as is a handy map of the notable grave sites you can pick up at the main office in a Spanish hacienda-style building, immediately on your left hand side as you enter the cemetery.