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Hollywood Forever, Part 2

Hollywood Forever Cemetery #2

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I have a deep aversion to the thought of being buried when I pass on.  After some self-analysis, I realize I have always experienced cemeteries as cold and foreign places. Having lost my father, all of my grandparents, several distant relatives, two schoolmates and another very close friend, I can say I have been to more than my fair share.  While beautiful in a surreal sort of way, the grounds of most of the cemeteries I’ve visited were manicured to the point that it appeared that they, too, had been embalmed; it was all too fake, too controlled.  I vividly recall deciding after each funeral I attended that I would never go back.  No matter how park-like or serene the surroundings, it was to no avail; there was no life there.  I remember feeling especially sad for my father, who was a true nature lover and who I’m sure would have preferred to have been scattered about an autumnal aspen grove in the Colorado mountains than to be stuck in a hole somewhere in the Midwest.   The whole process felt sad, somehow like the cemetery was a sort of interruption of the natural flow of things, and the dead had somehow been banished to their own equivalent of a leper’s colony.  Through preservation of their bodies the dead were no longer allowed to contribute to the flow of Life, nor were they in a place where such preservation would serve them well.

That’s why I was so surprised at being nothing short of compelled to revisit the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  When I returned, I realized what had nagged on me after my first visit: rather than feeling like death, the grounds felt- and left me feeling – completely alive. Here was an ongoing acceptance and celebration of life in all of its stages. Interspersed among the hundreds of graves, giant gray geese made nests and the ganders strutted about protectively.  Rather than relocate the geese, a simple sign was placed to warn visitors:  “WARNING: Geese are aggressive”.  (And yes, if you unwittingly get too close to a nesting goose, be prepared for a four-foot tall hissing gander to come after you.  That’s just the way it is.) As I discreetly watched a woman who had come to remember who I presume was her deceased husband, I had to smile; after she changed the flowers at his grave and lit some ceremonial incense, she walked towards the geese and began speaking to them. The ganders relaxed – they seemingly knew her well, and I could tell it gave her peace, delight, and a continued sense of purpose.

As I continued to tune in to what was happening around me, it occurred to me that if you came to Hollywood Forever to focus only on sorrow, you would be hard-pressed to not be distracted by the Life that was going on right underneath your nose.  Wading through water lilies, a pristine white crane courted my camera lens, while half a dozen peacocks showed off for onlookers just beyond.  Across the grounds, a fantastic white swan preened his feathers and gazed at his reflection at the Fairbanks Memorial.   And never mind the droppings – in the ongoing circle of life, “Sh!* Happens”.  I was most touched by the undeniable respect and care given to the feral cats that inhabit the spaces between the mausoleums. Rather than trap them or chase them off, the groundskeepers opt to take care of them, and trays filled with cat food are set out and meticulously covered with little tents to ward off any rain.  In my humble opinion, that’s a sample of humanity at its finest.

Instead of focusing on the “I’m so sad you’re gone” aspect of death, Hollywood Forever chooses instead to embrace and celebrate the essence of lives well-lived – the “I’m so happy you were here” part.  This focus is backed by ongoing cultural events held right on the premises, which enhance the lives of the living, and include art exhibits, movie screenings on the Fairbanks Lawn, live concerts held on the grounds and in the Masonic Lodge, and even a spectacular annual celebration of El Dia de los Muertos.  I cannot wait to go.

Ironically, I recently learned of another famous cemetery in the Los Angeles area.  Here’s a small sampling of their Visitor Guidelines:

“·  Picnicking and lying down on lawns or benches on the grounds are prohibited.

·  Loitering is prohibited.”

Hmmm….  Compare that to today’s press release in the Huffington Post advertising Hollywood Forever’s classic film screening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Celebrating the life of Elizabeth Taylor, tomorrow night’s show will mark the beginning of the 10th Annual Cinespia Classic Film Screening, which is held on the Fairbanks Lawn at the Hollywood Forever grounds:

“Two Wheel It: Bicyclists who line up in the driveway before we open the gate are let in before cars. Help keep LA’s air clean and we’ll give you special treatment.

Pack a Picnic: Bring your favorite food, wine, beer or cocktails. Small tables with collapsible/screw-on legs are handy, and a couple small candles help set the mood. Barbecues, grills, and fires are not allowed. Travel light and use a cooler or basket with wheels to make transportation easy.

Seating: Pillows and blankets will keep you cozy and comfy for the movie. A blanket is essential for your set up, and we recommend laying a tarp down under your blanket to keep it dry — it works wonders. We have a chair-free area in the center of the lawn; arrange your spread there for an unobstructed view. If you do bring a chair, make sure it’s 30 inches or lower with a seat that rests on the ground.

Special Needs:
We have areas reserved for wheelchairs and people who need special assistance. We also provide handicapped parking and restrooms — just ask our staff when pulling in and they’ll direct you.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, at Gordon Street, (323-221-3343 or www.cinespia.org)”

While I still wouldn’t wish to be buried anywhere, when it’s my time, I would be more than happy to have a part of me sprinkled over the Hollywood Forever grounds –   especially the part of me that loves concerts, old movies, picnics with small candles, and art.  And when you come to visit, don’t forget the popcorn!

Posted May 13th, 2011.

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Hollywood Forever, Part One

Hollywood Forever Cemetery # 1

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It was a cloudy, late afternoon the first time I visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  I’d heard a little bit about it being the final resting place of many of Hollywood’s finest, including Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks and his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and of Cecil B. DeMille, who was basically the father of the whole Hollywood phenomenon.   I’ve seen my fair share  of cemeteries around the world.  I figured this one would be like all the others, just with famous names attached to the headstones.  I was wrong.  Additionally, what I thought would be a casual check off my long list of places I wanted to see while I live here in Los Angeles turned into a place I’ll return to again and again.  Oddly, the words spoken by the VooDoo doctor’s wife in Clint Eastwood‘s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have been on constant replay in my head since I first visited Hollywood Forever:  “To understand the living, you got to commune with the dead“.

Maybe it’s the way the whole experience presented itself.  I was standing in what should have been a cold, silent mausoleum looking at Valentino’s burial chamber.  I was aware of music playing in the background; it was increasing in volume, and it definitely wasn’t somber.  Just as I snapped my first photo, I realized that what I was listening to was strains of Fleetwood Mac’s You Make Loving Fun. At Valentino’s resting place. ( “Hmmm…”  I thought to myself. ” I’ll bet he did, indeed!”)   The music thumped along as I walked back through the hallways;  by the time I got to the long line of marble saints in the entryway, the music had changed to the GorillazFeel Good Inc. I know I have a better than average imagination, but something inside of me  half expected the gargantuan marble saints to break from their pedestals and start groovin’ to the beat.

Back outside, we  realized that the music was coming from some sort of party in a wide open grassy space that lay between two mausoleums and backed up to Paramount Studios.  Folks in all sorts of artistically casual attire poured in, Frisbees were flying, and the full bar was flowing freely.  Someone was having a really healthy celebration of LIFE, right there where he/she was buried.   The music changed again, this time to James Blake’s Wilhelm Scream,  just as we reached the gravesite of Johnny Ramone. How fitting.

The Hollywood Forever grounds are extensive and extremely beautiful.  I can’t say they’re perfectly manicured; to the contrary, parts of the cemetery  had a slightly worn, neglected feel to them.  Studying a site map of the grounds, I recognized the obvious names, but couldn’t help but wonder at the hundreds of names I was completely unfamiliar with.  Who were these people?  What contribution did they make?  I hadn’t known then about the fantastic Interactive Site Map on Hollywood Forever’s website.  In what must have been a painstaking labor of love, Hollywood Forever has created a place in which, with a simple scroll of a mouse, you can click on the location of a grave and get, at the very least, a photo  and bio of the individual interred there.   It’s a fascinating glimpse into some of the personalities who shaped the Hollywood phenomenon and their experiences along the way,  and I strongly recommend visiting the website prior to a physical visit to the cemetery grounds.

Leaving the cemetery that day, I had a lingering feeling that I needed to go back.  It was something I couldn’t put my finger on, and it didn’t register until my second visit, the details of which I’ll save for my next post…

Posted May 6th, 2011.

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