I realize that it probably doesn’t sound like a very romantic date, but it’s tough for us to get a babysitter, so we had to multitask. And I really, really wanted to see this particular cemetery, because it features prominently in my upcoming book, Curses, Foiled Again.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California is the final resting place of over 250,000 people, including numerous celebrities. But it’s more than just a cemetery. The park also contains a museum, two mausoleums, and three chapels, which are all replicas of actual historical churches in Europe. (Fun fact: Ronald Regan married his first wife at one of chapels called the Wee Kirk O' The Heather.) (Another fun fact: Yes, that’s really what it’s called.) There’s also the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection, a building constructed for the sole purpose of exhibiting the world’s second largest painting. There are over 1500 statues, ten percent of which are reproductions of works by famous sculptors—the park hosts a complete collection of replicas of Michelangelo’s work. Over a million people visit each year.
All of this is the brainchild of Dr. Hubert Eaton. As an evangelical Christian, he had a strong belief that mortal death marked the beginning of a joyous eternal life in Paradise. Therefore, he felt that cemeteries have no business being gloomy. In 1917, Eaton took over the management of the park and began to implement his vision of a “happy eternal life.” He even laid out his vision in a massive stone monument entitled “the Builder’s Creed,” which states that Forest Lawn will be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is to darkness.” In the Creed, Eaton promises that the park will be “filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, noble memorial architecture with interiors full of light and color, and redolent of the world’s best history and romances.” (You can read the whole thing here.) A statue of two children and a puppy look up in awe at the Creed. You can stand right next to them and gape at it yourself. It’s pretty gape-worthy. The Builder’s Creed is not the only monument containing Dr. Eaton’s musings—there are several others, all in stone, which are always signed not as Dr. Eaton, but as The Builder.
So yeah, it’s not your typical cemetery. Have I mentioned it’s a franchise? There are ten Forest Lawn locations.
In Curses, Foiled Again, the cursed witch John has bought a plot here. Without giving away too much, he fully expects to be dead soon, and as a fan of Old Hollywood, he likes the idea of being buried in the same place as many of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Even without the celebrities, though, the appeal of this place is apparent. Eaton definitely achieved his vision. This is the happiest cemetery on earth.
Which is to say, it’s also a little—well, tacky. Or not tacky, exactly—everything is beautiful and meticulously crafted. There’s not a blade of grass out of place. It’s neat and tidy—in other words, not remotely like reality of death. This is death as a Disneyland attraction—in fact, Disney himself is buried here. There’s even music playing from invisible speakers as you walk around the place, just like when you walk down Main Street, USA in Disneyland—a Main Street which doesn’t resemble any actual place, but the dream of a place, an idealized image that’s fun and comforting—but it’s not real.
That’s the vibe of the place—unreal. I never knew quite how to behave. Could I take pictures there? Cameras were prohibited in the mausoleums, but according to the Builder himself, he wanted Forest Lawn to be “a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow…where artists study and sketch…where school teachers bring happy children to see things they read of in books,” which made me feel like maybe pictures were okay? I mean, this is a cemetery with a gift shop and thirteen-foot high statues of the Founding Fathers. Surely pictures were okay. What I ended up doing was waiting for my husband to give me the all clear sign, and then snapped the pictures.
And there were enough people around that we did have to wait until the coast was clear. Some of them were obviously grieving relatives, but there were a lot of people who looked more like my husband and me, consulting pamphlets over what attraction—er, monument to visit next. The museum was small but still busy—the current exhibition hosted art work by the painter Cao Yong. It was pretty good. We also took in a show at the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection. It turns out that you can’t just go and look at the world’s second-largest painting. It’s a whole presentation that shows on the hour every hour and lasts about twenty minutes. It tells the story of how Dr. Eaton heroically tracked down the painting, which depicts the moments leading up to Christ’s crucifixion. It had been lost for thirty years, tied up in customs when the Polish artist couldn’t pay the tariff. The presentation also explains how Dr. Eaton commissioned the sequel painting, which isn’t quite as big but is still very impressive. And yes, it’s a sequel—it completes the Crucifixion/Resurrection duology, which skips over the actual crucifixion—as has already been established, Forest Lawn is a strictly “No Bummer” zone.
But even as I found the whole spectacle of the place a little disorienting, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself. The park is huge—we ended up spending about three hours there and still didn’t manage to see everything. Every time you thought you’d seen it all, you’d round a corner and find, for example, the Labyrinth, which is described as a “walking path meditation,” or a giant mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The mausoleums were absolutely gorgeous, filled with beautiful stained glass windows.
And complaining that it all feels “fake” is kind of missing the point. Yes, it’s a little on the gaudy side, but I think the idea of making cemeteries nice places to visit is a good one. I’m not a Christian, so the reassurances of a glorious life after death weren’t particularly relevant to me, but both my husband and I agreed that celebrating the lives of people who have passed is a better way to honor their memoires than dwelling on the fact that they’re dead. It was weirdly nice way to spend the afternoon. And whether you believe in the “happy eternal life” or, like in my case, “YOLO,” it serves as a good reminder of both.