Bizarre, morbidly fascinating and gloriously over the top: this is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, final resting place of some of the biggest names in show business. If you’re going to Los Angeles, forget the expensive studio tours and theme park outings. Come visit the dead instead, and for free too. I was there just last week, and it left my jaw firmly rooted to the ground.
It may sound a bit strange that I’m advising you to visit a graveyard on your holidays, but this is no ordinary cemetery. Founded in 1899 and occupying an area of 25 hectares, its where Hollywood luminaries such as Cecil B. Demille, Jayne Mansfield and Rudolph Valentino are interred. As befitting their larger than life status, their graves often have more than a touch of the dramatic. Featuring accessories such as elaborate water features, and mausoleums the size of a small house, they literally have to be seen to be believed. And it’s not just the celebrities who went for the garish: plenty of ordinary individuals buried here have graves as tacky and outlandish as those of the famous. The closest Singaporean equivalent would be the historic Bukit Brown cemetery, which contains the remains of many of the country’s pioneers, and which I covered in a story for The Straits Times last year.
What do the dead care about their graves, it has been said. Not much, but the living sure do. My girlfriend had walked on ahead of me, and I caught up to find her chatting with some middle-aged individuals sitting in a golf cart. We had seen several of these carts, presumably used by family members to scout for prospective plots. It seems they were the relatives of Pete T. Stanley, the (self-proclaimed?) Piano Man, whose half million dollar crypt had a mock grand piano placed outside. There was even a large closet there, waiting to store the Chanel clothes of his widow (according to his relatives). When my girlfriend asked if they were really Stanley’s family, one of them exclaimed: “Why would I lie to you, sweetheart?”
But the grave that re-defines kitsch in the land of kitsch, is that of father and son acting duo, Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Jr. With a long reflecting pool populated by ducks and geese (!) resting on a lush, green lawn, and a crypt surrounded by marble walls, it feels more like the memorial to a dead president or king. I wasn’t quite sure whether to genuflect or to laugh out loud.
If you visit and want a guide to where the famous people are buried, maps are available from the Russian florist near the gate for US$5, or from the cemetery’s website. She told us that she usually sells about 10 maps a day. I’d advise you to hurry and pay a visit, but then again, the people there aren’t going anywhere.