Cemetery Visitors Celebrate Life, Not Death
Story and photos by Lara Hartley
Are cemeteries haunted by the dead or the living? Do marble angels watch over the souls who search among silvery tombstones for names, dates and stone flowers?
An Inglewood Cemetery angel is silhouetted against the night sky lit by lights from a near-by sports facility.
Call them grave hunters, genealogists or historians, gravers, tombstone tenders, stone strollers or death hags. Just don’t call them morbid. Or ghouls. Or heaven forbid, necrophiliacs.
Technically they are called taphophiles - people who love cemeteries and funerals. And they are just like you and me. They could even be your neighbors.
Fascination with death and dying has been part of the human psyche since early man and a cemetery, old or new, is a peaceful place to contemplate our small place in the universe.
With Web sites devoted to who, where and when someone died, finding famous
graves seems to be a growing hobby. Yahoo forums are there to discuss the finer
points of grave hunting, and people make special vacation plans to visit their
idols, whether movie stars or past presidents.
Cemeteries like Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City are open to public exploration and even offer guides to where celebrity residents are buried. Others, like Forest Lawn in Glendale, won’t answer questions about who is buried where, and many areas are off limits to the public.
Mark Masik’s “Hollywood Remains to Be Seen” is the definitive
guide to the final resting places of Hollywood’s elite. Detailed walking
tours lead you to the graves of hundreds of stars. Just don’t have the
book visible when you visit Forest Lawn - a female employee at the Great
Mausoleum was seen confiscating a visitor’s celebrity grave reference
Lisa Robinson, of Los Angeles, makes an image at the Victor Valley Memorial
Park. Robinson has friends and relatives buried at the cemetery.
The many Internet sites that foster the growing hobby of driving back roads and searching out the dead include Steve Goldstein’s “Beneath Los Angeles” - an irreverent look at “the famous, the infamous and the just plain dead.”
“Hollywood Forever is one of the ‘friendly’ cemeteries that have no problem with us taking pictures or wandering the grounds,” Goldstein says. “They celebrate the fact that there are famous folks buried on their grounds. They even provide helpful maps of the stars’ graves, which used to be free for the asking, but now I think they sell it.
“Other cemeteries that fall into the ‘friendly’ category include Hillside and Holy Cross in Culver City, San Fernando Mission in Granada Hills, Home of Peace in Boyle Heights, and Angelus-Rosedale in downtown LA, which puts on an annual ‘Living History Tour’ with volunteer actors portraying historic figures at graveside and recounting their life stories.”
Goldstein’s favorite grave is that of Douglas Fairbanks.
“In the days of neglect at Hollywood Memorial, when his rather impressive monument was covered in moss, I would stand there and picture Charlie Chaplin visiting the grave of his best friend,” he says.
“To go inside a mausoleum that holds Valentino since 1926 is spine tingling.”
Burbank’s Dawn Wirth, a member of Hollywood Underground, has been going to famous gravesites since 1977. “I visit the famous, because some of them seem forgotten, like Buster Keaton, whom I visit a lot,” said Wirth. “My friend Shannon Cole and I go to Hollywood Forever to clean the headstones, and Forest Lawn to clean Buster’s.”
Each graver has their own special graving kit containing what they think they will need for a day of “graving.” (see list at bottom of article)
Marlene Soffera, senior pastor at Victor Valley Church of God in California's Victor Valley, visits the cities of the dead for different reasons.
Though she often visits to conduct a funeral, other times she collect epitaphs. “You can learn a lot about life hanging around dead people,” she said. “You can tell so much about people based on what their epitaph says.
Pastor Marlene Soffera copies an epitaph from a tombstone at Sunset Hills
Memorial Park in Apple Valley.
“If it is an upbeat person, who had a positive outlook with hope for the future, you can see that in their epitaphs. On the negative side, you can also see sarcasm, cynicism or a ‘woe is me’ outlook.”
Some folks, like Joe Doyle of Victorville, Calif. visit graveyards planning for the inevitable while checking out his future neighbors.
“When I first arrived in California, my friends and I visited a slew of cemeteries looking for famous people,” said Doyle. “I have a spot picked out and paid for in Westwood Cemetery where Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor’s parents are buried. The plot is all paid for and ready to move into when my time expires.”
Doyle’s graveyard neighbors are Burt Lancaster and Eve Arden. “Marilyn’s crypt is in sight of my spot where I will have my cremated remains rested,” added Doyle.
Visiting cemeteries turned into a business for Jim Tipton, who created Find
A Grave.com (FAG) in 1995. He started the company after realizing there was no
central source for celebrity burial site information on the Web.
The site started out with his meagre 20-30 grave sites, he said. “People wrote e-mails and told me who I was missing, like Elvis and Jim Morrison, and I would add the names one at a time,” said Tipton.
Today FAG boasts more than 300,000 members, and 15,000 names of the deceased are submitted every day. And FAG is no longer just about famous names.
“Our lists are growing faster than the U.S. death rate,” he said. “Our goal is to have a list of where everyone who died in the U.S. is buried. We are actually making progress!”
Tipton says his favorite grave is still that of Al Capone “because it was my first long-distance pilgrimage to find a grave.”
“I wasn’t a big fan of Capone or his life, but I liked Mafia
movies and figured he was buried somewhere,” said Tipton.
Books led Tipton to where Capone’s name is etched in stone. He thought, “Whoa. I am standing where Al Capone ended up.” (Capone was originally buried at Mt. Olivet in Chicago, but the family became tired of all the sightseers and vandalism of the monument and moved Capone’s remains to Mt. Carmel. People soon found the simpler memorial and left odd mementos of respect: a cigar, bottles of beer, even a toy gun.)
Making burial information available to others is important to Tipton, and implementing the photo request process on Find A Grave has been one of his meaningful milestones.
“The photo request system is one of my most-liked features I have added to FAG,” he said laughing. “Sometimes, within hours of a request, a person on the other side of the country goes out to find the gravestone, photographs that stone, uploads it and you can see it.”
Seeing that gravestone is a tangible link to recent relatives or long-dead ancestors. You may know they are part of your family intellectually, but seeing their actual gravesite makes them more real, he said. The family roots bind more tightly.
Hesperia’s Joe Canfield finds visiting some cemeteries humbling.
“I was at Arlington National Cemetery a few years back, and due to the sheer size of it, I just picked a name - Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who was one of the guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, in the famous photo by Joe Rosenthal.
“After about a half-mile walk I found it, and after I spent a few minutes with him, I decided I would have to spend a lot more time at Arlington the next time I went,” he said. “I also paid my respects to Audie Murphy, JFK and Tomb of the Unknown.
“Arlington is a very emotional and humbling experience, but made me
feel a connection with history. I believe all Americans should spend a day there.”
The well-prepared gravers’ kit (or what to take with you when you go graving)
- flower spade
- wisk broom
- utility knife
- small flags
- items for making rubbings/tin foil
- digital camera with plenty of memory and batteries
- pocket knife
- small house-plant kit with clippers, tiny rake, shovel
- pencils & pens
- soft brush
- spray bottle
- 1-2 gallons of clean water
- pruning shears
- grass clipper
- straw hat
- FAG interment printout for the cemetery
- cell phone
- a stocked cooler if it’s a long visit
BOOKS ON FAMOUS BURIALS
- The Stars of Hollywood Forever - Tony Luke Scott
- Celebrities in Los Angeles Cemeteries - Allan R. Ellenberger
- The Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More than 125 American Movie and TV Idols - James Robert Parish
- Where the Bodies Are: Final Visits to the Rich, Famous, & Interesting - Patricia Brooks
- Dishing Hollywood: The Real Scoop on Tinseltown's Most Notorious Scandals - Laurie Jacobson
- Cemetery Research - covers everything from cemetery and death-related terminology to clues offered by headstone art, and cemeteries' role in our culture and history. - Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
- Death in Paradise - An illustrated history of the Los Angeles
County Coroner's Office - Offers an inside look at the the most celebrated deaths
of the century. In paperback.
From the Cutting Edge Office Supplies Collection
GRAVE HUNTING WEB LINKS
Find A Grave - find the graves of the famous and not famous.
Beneath Los Angeles
Hollywood Underground - the burial sites of Hollywood's most
famous stars, moguls and eccentrics.
Cemetery Transcription Library
Death and Dying in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Univeristy of York, Cemetery Research Group
City of the Silent
Tomb With A View's Guide to Dying
The Association for Gravestone Studies
Find A Death - death, scandle, intrigue, home of the Death Hags, a
bit on the morbid side, but an interesting site with lots of books available
The Farber Gravestone Collection from the American Antiquarian Society - thousands
of cemetery images
Los Angeles Coroner's shop - "Skeletons in the Closet,
For those of us with dubious distinctive taste." One has to see the stuff
Celebrity death certificates
Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley
Angels Guard the Living and the Dead: Spirits in Stone
St. Andrews Abbey: A World of Wonder
Cassini Call Home: Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex
Birthday Road Trip: Route 66
Ludlow for Lunch
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