There’s plenty of hiking trails around Los Angeles, but sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the wilderness and hike places such as Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. It’s a really interesting place that not many people know about, and it’s not really explored. There’s no end to the amazing amount of art displayed. Their collection includes the complete replicas of Michelangelo statues, dozens of beautiful stained glass windows, including two that have absurd multi-media presentations, a mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and a giant bronze statue of George Washington.
Originally developed in the early 1900s, it quickly became one of the most progressive cemeteries of its day – permanently changing the business aspects of American cemeteries through its example. Fate brought a man named Hubert Eaton to become its president in 1916. Eaton’s vision, and the fact that Forest Lawn has continued to hold firm to Eaton’s famous Builder’s Creed, has turned the concept of a cemetery from that of crumbling tombstones to a true “garden” of peace.
Forest Lawn was the first to eliminate traditional tombstones and grave markers, in order to establish a park-like appearance. It was also the first to position works of art that celebrated life and was not the sorrowful sculpture that is most commonly associated with cemeteries.
One of the more enticing things here is grave hunting. While an art walk through Forest Lawn could require more than one day to fully complete, the true purpose is obviously to serve as the final resting place for over 250,000 people, including more celebrities than anywhere else in the world. Walt Disney, Jimmy Stewart, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford, Clark Gable, and George Burns are all immortalized here.
Others, like Walt Disney and George Burns, are not completely off-limits, it’s just matter of a gate being open or stepping over a chain. Then, there’s Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart, which are behind giant metal doors that can only be opened with a “golden key.” (Yup, that’s what it says on the door). Michael Jackson’s tomb is not only hidden and far from the public’s eye, but the exact whereabouts is not even known.
Don’t expect the Forest Lawn staff to provide any details on grave locations. They don’t exactly smile upon visitors who are searching for their favorite stars’ graves or crypts, so it’s up to you to find them.
TIP: By policy, the Forest Lawn staff is not allowed to disclose the location of any of their patrons – especially the more famous ones. Please do not ask or expect them to tell you where a grave site is. If you are looking to visit specific memorials, you should do your research before your visit.
If you are planning on taking in all that Forest Lawn has to offer, The Hall of the Crucifixion and Resurrection (built in the 1940s and dedicated in 1951) and the Forest Lawn Museum (opened in 1952) are the first places I recommend touring. Allow about an hour to experience this area, as there are several exhibits that require at least a 25-minute block of time.
Eaton’s reasoning is forever carved in stone in front of Forest Lawn’s Grand Mausoleum. The Grand Mausoleum is a perfect second stop if you only have a portion of the day. Inside are direct cast replicas of most of the famed works of Michelangelo, including several pieces from the Medici Chapel and even La Pieta.
When you reach the highest point at Forest Lawn, just past the Court of Freedom, you pass over a replica of the Labyrinth that resides in the Chartes Cathedral in France. This labyrinth is used for what is known as “walking meditation” – following the path as it winds in its circular fashion.
After leaving Forest Lawn I was on my way to visit Marilyn Monroe’s resting place. If you’re looking for a smaller laid back cemetery trip, Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park is a good choice. The staff is much friendlier and open to answer questions, even though it’s very easy to navigate on your own.
Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park and Mortuary was established in 1905 by the state of California under the name of Sunset Cemetery, with the earliest burials at the site dating back to the 1880s. In 1926 the cemetery’s name was changed to Westwood Memorial Park as the city began to take shape with nearby UCLA to open a few years later.
Now, Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is entirely surrounded by high-rises, so that the cemetery is invisible from the street. You can only enter on its west side, from Glendon Avenue. Watch for a small sign about eye level on one of the buildings as you’re headed toward Wilshire Boulevard. The entrance looks as if you’re driving into a parking lot, but veer right at your first opportunity and you’ll see parking on the street that encircles the burial lawn.
In November 2002, the Cultural Heritage Commission of the city of Los Angeles designated Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park as Historical-Cultural Monument No. 731. What was once a country graveyard surrounded by grasslands, a few country homes and dirt roads, is now a beautiful cemetery tucked away in the heart of Westwood’s business district as a serene oasis where families can continue with the tradition of ground burial or chose a crypt in the newly added Sanctuary of Prayer Mausoleum.
According to Forever L.A.: A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries and their Residents, the second most-visited grave in Westwood belongs to Natalie Wood, who starred in Westside Story and Rebel Without a Cause, and drowned in her nightgown after a night of partying on a yacht with her husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken.
Also buried in Westwood Memorial Park are Rodney Dangerfield (whose headstone says, “There goes the neighborhood.”) Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin, Bob Crane (most famous for Hogan’s Heroes and the scandalous way he died), Carroll O’Connor (who played Archie Bunker before he became a TV police chief), Don Knotts (who moved from The Andy Griffith Show to Disney movies to become the nosy landlord on Three’s Company, and original Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett. Some stars rest here without little fanfare. “Queen of the Pin-Ups” Bettie Page has a very modest stone.
Joe DiMaggio chose this cemetery to be Marilyn Monroe’s final resting place because it was sleepy and out of the way. Since then, the marble front of her niche in the mausoleum has been stained pink by all the lipstick kisses left by fans.
In addition to all the movie stars, Westwood has its share of writers. Author of “In Cold Blood” Truman Capote’s ashes are in a niche facing the cemetery entrance. The ashes of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, are in the Room of Prayer columbarium beyond Marilyn. Billy Wilder, screenwriter of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot, has a headstone that reads, “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.” Near him lies Ray Bradbury, whose headstone remembers him as the author of Fahrenheit 451.
Here’s a map of stars resting in Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park if you decide to visit. The Memorial Garden is located at 1218 Glendon Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Hours are Monday thru Sunday are 8-5.