Wednesday, 30 June 2010

City Of Angels: Final Resting Places, Part 1: Forest Lawn, 1712 Glendale Avenue, Glendale

So intrigued was English novelist Evelyn Waugh by the concept of Forest Lawn and its American - or rather Hollywood - way of dying that he famously immortalised this cemetery in his book, The Loved One, where it stands in for Whispering Glades. In fact, Waugh's fascination with Forest Lawn was so great, that it prompted him to jot down the following lines in his diary on Thursday, February 13, 1947: "I found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there".

Founded in 1917 by Dr. Hubert Eaton who, as a staunch believer in life after death, intended to remove the morbid aura which ordinary graveyards are invariably surrounded by, and elevated the cemetery concept to a higher ground, one which would make people forget that they are actually in a place where the dead are laid to rest. And so Eaton went on to create an environment that reflected his optimistic convictions. Indeed, there is nothing sinister about these immaculate, pristine grounds which, with their manicured lawns and grand mausoleums that resemble regal mansions, put London's Hyde Park to shame in shame and appearance.

Approaching Forest Lawn's gilded gates, and looking at the splashing fountain teeming with swans and the faux-Tudor-style mansion next to it, calls to mind images of stately homes in England. Of the five Forest Lawn branches (Hollywood Hills, Covina Hills, Long Beach, Cypress and Glendale), the Glendale branch easily outshines all others in grandeur and opulence for besides being a cemetery - even though there is precious little that reminds the casual visitor of that - Forest Lawn Glendale also boasts a small art museum, a variety of replicas of statues by Michelangelo, as well as a stained glass reproduction of Da Vinci's Last Supper which, when lit up from behind, gives the impression of the sun rising at daybreak, until over the course of a ten-minute light show, the light gets gradually dimmer, eventually giving the dumbstruck spectator the impression of the sun setting right behind Jesus and his disciples.

So posh and un-cemetery like is Forest Lawn Glendale in fact, that some people even choose to get married here, as in the case of Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, who exchanged their wedding vows right here in one of the churches on the grounds. With all its glitz and splendour, it is hardly a surprise that Forest Lawn Glendale has been one of the preferred resting places for Hollywood Royalty ever since it first opened its gilded gates. More Hollywood luminaries are buried here than in any other cemetery around town, but most of them are kept under lock and key and with Forest Lawn's strict celebrity policy, trying to track down some of the burial sites can be a rather frustrating and daunting experience. In the Sanctuary of Benediction in the Great Mausoleum - which actually looks like a French chateau - for instance, is where Red Skelton, Sid Grauman (the founder of the Chinese and Egyptian Theatres), David O. Selznick, Clara Bow, and Irving G. Thalberg and his wife Norma Shearer are laid to rest. On a wall in a wing in the same building, but cordoned off and thus inaccessible to the casual visitor - are two plaques next to each other, indicating the final resting places of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Then again Jean Hersholt, an actor of Danish origin of the silent era after which the Academy Award for Humanitarian Achievement is named, is buried in a crypt just outside the Great Mausoleum.

Forest Lawn, which in a way is like the Disneyland of cemeteries, reflects the glamour and artificiality of Hollywood to a 't' and as such, it couldn't be anywhere else in the world but here.