Cemetery Visiting

Cemetery Visitors Celebrate Life, Not Death

Story and photos by Lara Hartley

all images click to enlarge and copyright 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.

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.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there, I did not die.

.... Mary Frye

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 book.

Lisa Robinson, of Los Angeles, ?makes an image at the Victor Valley Memorial Park. Robinson has friends and relatives buried at the cemetery.

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.”


Angels as Art from the City of Angels

Angels as Art from the City of Angels

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.”

My wife and I walk in cemeteries. The main and odd reason is that we like to read the names. There are many interesting names that were common in the past but seldom used today. It's an interesting study.

One can also place the history of a community within the global timeline of the cemeteries lifetime. Almost invariably, for instance, one sees many stones dated 1918, sometimes whole families, due to the flu epidemic of the time.

Scott and Susan Daniels, Dover, OH

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.

Pator Marlene Soffera copies an epitaph from a tombstone at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley.

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.

My husband Richard and I visit graveyards whenever we go on vacation to PA and NY. We have walked many cemeteries in both states. We are genealogists and can hardly go by a cemetery without looking over at it. Some of the stones are quite elaborate and some are quite pitiful, but all are interesting. We take pictures of all our ancestors gravestones, and are saving our money to replace a few broken ones.

Jakki Lutz, Victorville

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.

I live in the Sycamore Rock area of Apple Valley just a few blocks away from the Sunset Hills cemetery. My husband and I and our two young children frequently take walks through the Sunset Hills cemetery. Sure we visit the grave sites of friends but we also enjoy seeing the sunsets from “above the valley” ... We have taken visitors from out of town to see the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans grave sites, the elegant ponds, rock sculptures, the rolling hills, and the beautiful views. We have spent many hours wandering and visiting the grave sites of people we never met wondering who they were and remembering our friends.

Kim Walker, Apple Valley Resident

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.”

Angels as Art from the City of Angels

Angels as Art from the City of Angels

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
  • clipboards/binders
  • pencils & pens
  • notepads
  • soft brush
  • spray bottle
  • 1-2 gallons of clean water
  • sponge
  • pruning shears
  • grass clipper
  • compass
  • DEET
  • sunscreen
  • straw hat
  • binoculars
  • FAG interment printout for the cemetery
  • cell phone
  • a stocked cooler if it’s a long visit

My husband and I are avid genealogists. We love visiting all kinds of cemeteries and photographing the gravestones of our ancestors. When we plan vacations, we always plan on visiting cemeteries. It is one highlights of our trip. One of the most interesting cemeteries that we have ever visited is in the backwoods of North Carolina. It is an old and abandoned cemetery which was once located on a plantation.

Craig and Mary Anne Stephens

  • 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

Angels as Art from the City of Angels

Angels as Art from the City of Angels



You never know what you may learn in a cemetery.

Norma (Gossard) Nikkel, Victorville


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.

View DesertUSA Reader's Photos of Cemeteries

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 for sale!

Celebrity death certificates

Related Stories

The Death of Cochise
How Geronimo Lost His Head and Found Yale
The Haunted Desert
Ghosts of Old Mesilla (scroll down to read about the cemetery)

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
Intimate Landscapes



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