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The Soul of the City: Blues, Belief and the Big Top at Inglewood Park Cemetery

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Substantial. It's an odd word to choose when you are trying to describe a graveyard. But it is the first one that pops into my head as I walk around the sprawling Inglewood Park Cemetery on a brilliant weekday afternoon. Everything in the cemetery seems massive and firmly rooted -- the headstones are solid and imposing, the mausoleums impressive, and the stone chapel is distinguished, if a little faded. Everything is extremely well-tended and grounds people are everywhere, repairing a family mausoleum or trimming a stocky tree with oversized shears. It feels sophisticated. The names of the deceased are rarely obstructed by flowers or teddy bears.

And what names they are. Every few minutes, I stumble upon a new story from this eclectic metropolis. There is the stately family crypt of the pioneering Workman family, only a few feet away from the grave of the famous fighter Sugar Ray Robinson and his beloved wife, Millie. There are religious leaders, maverick musicians, and rows of little babies, whose graves are by far the most decorated. In the beautiful yet antiseptic and silent Mausoleum of the Golden West, stained glass windows tell the history of early California.

Atop the hill, the elegantly distressed Grace Chapel is locked. I stand and look at the valley of graves below -- at the rugged crosses and moss covered angels that seem to have been in place for a thousand years. But in reality, the cemetery's history stretches back to only 1905, when Los Angeles was just beginning its ascendancy as one of the most diverse cities in the land.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Largest in the World, Also the Finest

In 1905, Inglewood was a sleepy, unincorporated hamlet two miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. That year a group of local businessmen, including Mark G. Jones, R.H. Raphael and P.W. Powers, formed the Inglewood Cemetery Association. They bought a 320 acre parcel of land "on a slight knoll overlooking Los Angeles and Pasadena" with "fine views of the city and the ocean" right outside of Inglewood. The association had lofty goals, and proclaimed the cemetery park would be "the largest in the world" and "the finest in the world." 2

Improvements were made in the "New York lawn plan" style to some of the grounds. The park featured many modern conveniences. It had its own water plant to keep the grounds green and lush. There was an Inglewood Park stop off the Redondo Electric Railway, making travel time from L.A. clock in at around thirty minutes. In the back of the chapel was a crematory. Refrigerated vaults were built into the hillside for the many "eastern people" whose bodies needed to be held until family and friends could make arrangements to ship them back east. The park would also be endowed, and plots purchased, so bereaved family members had the comfort of knowing "that their dead loved ones will not be removed." 3 The first superintendent of the park was Captain Lomais, who for many years had been in charge of the sprawling Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

The first burial was on July 26, 1906. The park quickly became the chosen resting spot for many of Southern California's early aristocracy. It also became the site of religious pilgrimage. Thornton Chase, the first American to convert to the Baha'i faith, was buried at Inglewood after dying in L.A. on Oct. 1, 1912. Abdu'l-Baha, the head of the religious group, had been on his way to meet Chase. On October 19, Baha and a group of fellow Baha'is took the train to Inglewood Park where they covered the recently dug grave with flowers while chanting sacred prayers. He instructed all Baha'is who travelled in America to visit Thornton's grave, and then gently kissed Chase's headstone. Within a year, Chase's widow estimated that over 1000 Baha'is had visited her husband's grave. Today, numerous Baha'is are buried around the monument erected to Chase.

Sisters with mother at the Inglewood Cemetery, 1910 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Sisters with mother at the Inglewood Cemetery, 1910 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Inglewood Cemetery, ca. 1930 | Cary Moore Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Inglewood Cemetery, ca. 1930 | Cary Moore Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In 1913, the park's directors continued their tradition of innovation when they announced plans "to revolutionize methods of burial in the Los Angeles vicinity." 4 The California Mausoleum Company, formed by a group of Pasadena businessmen, began construction of Southern California's first community mausoleum (heretofore reserved for the elite), which would "compare favorably with that of any structure in the world. According to the L.A. Times, the 1200 crypt structure of granite, cement, marble, bronze and art glass would be unbelievably high tech:

As its name suggests, Inglewood Park was not only a burial place, it was also a public meeting place. One particularly dramatic social event occurred in December, 1917, when the Order of the Elks Lodge 99 gathered at their burial plot, as Earl Houck, the "blind baritone", sang sweetly in the background:

This was not the first song that was sung at Inglewood Park. And it was certainly not the last.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

City of the Dead

The "modern age" tore into stately and serene Inglewood Park on June 21, 1920, when it was badly damaged by an earthquake caused by the Newport-Inglewood Fault. The L.A. Times reported on the damage:

The bustling urban jungle of Chandler and West was on full display in the comings and goings at Inglewood Park. Beneath a nameless granite stone, decorated with only an etching of a small grey mouse, lay the infant child of Charlie Chaplin and Mildred Harris, his teen bride. Nicknamed "the little mouse," the child was born with severe deformities and only lived three days. Soon after the death, the Chaplins became entangled in a very public and very vicious divorce. It was reported that Mildred, an actress, would often rush off whatever set she was working on and visit the little grave alone. She would place flowers on the grave, while her mother and soon- to- be ex duked it out in the court of public opinion.

A few years later, the cemetery was visited by another pretty teenager -- "enamored runaway girl" Estella Bruce, a 17 year old blinded by the silver screen of Hollywood. According to the L.A. Times, "the lure of a celluloid future" had proved too great, causing her to leave the modest home she and her mother Carrie shared in Los Angeles. She changed her name and disappeared into her new life. Three months later a distraught Carrie was struck by a car during a rainstorm and killed. The Bruce family was unable to locate Estella, and Carrie was buried without her favorite child's knowledge. Three days later Estella was located, and she made her way to her mother's grave.

The dreams of fame were turned to gall. She stood, racked by emotion, and sobbed out her tragedy. "It is over. I have lost everything and I am to blame. My dear dead mother, my dear little mother, my dear little mother, my dear little mother!" 9

There were comedic turns in the cemetery as well. In 1923, the same year a new mausoleum opened at the cemetery, a honey salesman called Mr. Walker awoke in Inglewood Park.

Mr. Walker claimed to have amnesia and to not remember his marriage to Bessie I. Dickey. The Judge granted Mr. Walker an annulment, much to the displeasure of the new Mrs. Walker, who remembered every single detail of their courtship.

Illustration of Mr. Walker's 'honeymoon' | Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1923
Illustration of Mr. Walker's 'honeymoon' | Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1923

There were darker goings on as well. In 1922, M.B Mosher, a constable and member of the Ku Klux Klan, was killed after a nighttime raid he and other Inglewood citizens had illegally launched against a Spanish bootlegger and his family. The town was sharply divided over the assault, and the morning of his funeral, according to the L.A. Times, "before the first spadesful of earth fell upon the lowered casket, the spirit of the clan had expired, as far as Inglewood was concerned." 11

In 1932, the cemetery was again touched with Hollywood tragedy when it played host to the funeral of MGM executive Paul Bern, who had shot himself at the home he shared with Jean Harlow. A reporter described the chaotic scene:

In 1931, Ringling Brothers' star Alfredo Codona erected a large memorial to his wife, the equally famous aerialist Lillian Leitzel, who had died as the result of a fall in Copenhagen months before. A large ceremony, with many stars of the Big Top in attendance, was held for the statue's unveiling, which the L.A. Times explained:

Six years later, Codona went mad and fatally shot his second wife before turning the gun on himself. He was buried next to Leitzel's ashes near the monument he had erected for "the only woman who ever loved me." 14

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

A Choir of Angels

It was not all doom and gloom. Many of the people buried at Inglewood Park -- which expanded exponentially with the construction of new mausoleums -- lived long lives, filled with purpose. Mrs. Hancock Banning, who founded the Assistance League and organized relief efforts during World War I, and Ettie Lee, a teacher whose genius in real estate enabled her to found a string of progressive boys homes, rest at Inglewood. Julia Crawford Ivers, one of the first female motion picture directors, who worked prolifically at Paramount during the silent era of film, was buried at the cemetery. When Fire Captain Elwood H. Henry was killed saving a small boy, his last wish was honored with a final trip to Inglewood Park in a fire truck.

During the '60s and '70s, Inglewood Park became increasingly a part of the Black community, and a place for members to come together and bury their dead. During the 1980s, the park also became a place of celebration, hosting services on Martin Luther King Day, and a speaker series, featuring talks on Black history. In 2002, Lady Sala Shabazz, a local legend and historian who founded the Black Inventions Museum and wrote many books on Black history, was interred at Inglewood. In 1998, the legendary Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' first Black mayor, was buried at the cemetery.

Story continues below

Inglewood Park is the final resting place of musical legends -- Big Mama Thornton, Percy Mayfield, Etta James, Chet Baker, Billy Preston, T-Bone Walker, and the incomparable Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. When jazz pianist Alton Purnell passed away, his friends threw him a true New Orleans Style funeral, with "a brass band to play dirges going in and happy music coming back." Many fans make pilgrimages to the graves of James, Charles and Fitzgerald, whose crypt in Sunset Mission Mausoleum features a single musical bar.

Sadly, in 2003, gang turmoil infringed on the peace of the cemetery during the funeral of a 19 year old man. The shoot-out began when two rival gang members passed each other in the mausoleum and began shooting. Policemen (who are always sent to a suspected gang member's funeral) joined in the gunfight. A funeral director stated "it was chaos, complete chaos," as hundreds of mourners scurried for cover. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. 15

Today the cemetery retains its peaceful and respectful atmosphere despite its enormous size. Two new projects, the Garden of Chimes and the Grandview Mausoleum and Lawn, are currently being constructed. The recently completed Sunset Mission Mausoleum has space for 30,000 interments. It is the largest Mausoleum in the country. Over 300,000 people are currently interred at Inglewood Park, and with the massive amount of space supplied by new memorial gardens and mausoleums, it seems that number will only increase.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

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1 "Large, beautiful cemetery" Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1906
2 Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1905 "Largest in world also the finest"
3 "Large, beautiful cemetery" Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1906
4 "For housing dead: immense granite and marble mausoleum" Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1913
5 "For housing dead: immense granite and marble mausoleum" Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1913
6 "Elks, in mystic rites unveil large statue" Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1917
7 "Lee side of L.A.: Hollywood Park" Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1938
8 "Cut Inglewood loss in half" Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1920
9 "Sobs error on silent grave" Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1925
10 "Honeymoon in cemetery" Los Angeles Times, June 29 1923
11 "Bury klan spirit with constable" Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1922
12 "Rites marked by simplicity" Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1932
13 "Famous aerialist to start last rest" Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1931
14 "Waltz theme of circus act played at Codonas funeral" Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1937
15 "Gun fire at Inglewood cemetery injures" Los Angeles Sentinel, October 30, 2003

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