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Wandering Through L.A.'s Other Parks

Holy Cross | Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Holy Cross | Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Ever wondered how cemeteries evolved from sacred burial grounds to "parks"? How did these graveyards start attracting sightseers -- even those without deceased loved ones to visit?

You can thank Hubert Eaton for that. When his Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale (then the city of Tropico) was rechristened "Forest Lawn Memorial Park," it took the mortality out of mortuaries and brought art, culture, music, and architecture to an otherwise morose setting. Although he was a devout Christian, he brought plenty of secular influences into the sacred setting.

Today, you can still see his influence in Glendale and at other Forest Lawn locations throughout Southern California. Many other cemeteries have found multitude ways to draw more visitors who do not grieve, and to distract those who do. Like recreational parks, these "memorial parks" provide paved walkways, gardens, statuaries, performances, and plenty of glorious Southern California sunshine that make visiting a historical, cultural, and aesthetic experience.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Forest Lawn Glendale: Officially established as a "memorial park" by Eaton in 1917, the rolling hills at Forest Lawn don't appear to be filled with the dead and buried until you get up close and inspect the flat plaques that mark the graves. By design, it's supposed to look like a park. Eaton did such a good job at sweeping the ashes under the rug that Forest Lawn drew the biggest crowds out of any other attraction in Southern California -- that is, until Disneyland opened.

For nearly a century, people have passed through those giant wrought-iron gates (modeled after those of Buckingham Palace) to peruse Eaton's extensive collection of art from all over the world, gaze at an incredible collection of stained glass in the Great Mausoleum, get married at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather church, and listen to the talking statues (which unfortunately don't talk anymore).

Much like modern-day Vegas casinos, its non-denominational chapels and sculptures are replicas, so you can experience Britain, France, and Italy in one day without ever leaving Glendale.

Many visitors come to pay respect to the numerous celebrities interred here (Clark Gable, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, and Walt Disney to name a few), but many of their burial sites are locked away in private areas reserved only for families. But there's so much else to do at Forest Lawn Glendale, you could spend all day here without visiting even a grave.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Have a seat in the Wishing Chair, amble through one of the Vestry Walks, take a vow at the Ring of Aldyth, or meditatively walk the labyrinth (a replica from Chartres Cathedral in France).

For some art, stroll through the gardens for a viewing of replicas of David and the Pieta by Michelangelo, see "The Crucifixion" by the Polish painter Jan Styka at the Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection, or visit the latest exhibit in the museum. 1712 S. Glendale Ave, Glendale, CA 91205

PetCemetery

Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park: The most whimsical statuary collection at a Southern California graveyard has got to be at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, though most of the figures are comparatively diminutive in size. Birds, bunnies, and lambs all frolic in a most unusual stone menagerie dedicated to the animals that have sadly passed on. Mourners elaborately decorate the grave sites of their beloved pets, some even refreshing them with seasonal themes. The park is in absolute pristine condition, and it's one of the most manicured resting places in Southern California.

Buried here are celebrities of the furry and feathered variety, including Leo the MGM lion and Blinky the Friendly Hen, as well as hundreds of dogs, cats, bunnies, reptiles, and horses with nicknames and etched likenesses that will make even the most jaded visitor squee with delight.

These animals weren't just pets: they were their humans' best friends, and even the evil ones named "Satan" and "Manson" were their babies. Conservationists and animals lovers interested in the historic Jones Dog and Cat Hospital in West Hollywood may want to visit this cemetery, which was also founded by Dr. Eugene C. Jones, Hollywood's "Veterinarian to the Stars." 5068 Old Scandia Ln, Calabasas, CA 91372

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Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Inglewood Park Cemetery: Inglewood Park Cemetery, where jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James were laid to rest, is home to California's first mausoleum. It's worth the visit just to see the stained glass designed and fabricated by various artisans including L.A.'s own historic Judson Studios. But it's also home to some of the world's largest mausolea, as well as notable gardens, skylights, fountains, and reflecting pools.

If you know the area only from taking flights in and out of LAX and attending the occasional concert at the Forum, the cemetery is one way to learn about the rich history of Inglewood. Here, other notables including Ray Charles, Sugar Ray Robinson, and former L.A. Major Tom Bradley are buried here. You might even catch the release of live doves during one of the funeral processions. 720 E Florence Ave, Inglewood, CA 90302

Rose Hills: If you ever hiked the trails of Whittier (Hellman Park, Turnbull Canyon, Sycamore Canyon), you may have noticed a pagoda with a terracotta roof in the distance. This is the columbarium at Rose Hills Memorial Park, and is the country's largest Buddhist pagoda in North America's largest cemetery. The columbarium is just one area in the cemetery to inter Buddhists' cremated remains and it's probably the best vista point in all of Rose Hills. Climbing to the top reveals spectacular views of the San Gabriel Valley and mountains, as well as the rest of the memorial park.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Rose Hill's gorgeous architecture and landscaping include the Lake of the Roses with its Japanese garden, the Pageant of Roses Garden with over 600 rose varieties, the SkyRose Chapel with its custom pipe organ, and a number of other gardens, chapels, lawns, memorials, and mausolea. There's even a gravity hill to amuse yourself on, and 20-foot neon letters that spell out "ROSE HILLS," which have become a beacon for pilots flying at night.

You can find a self-guided tour on the Rose Hills website, or just show up and get lost on its 1,400 acres. You won't find a lot of celebrities buried here, but if you're lucky, you'll stumble across the nondescript grave site of hip-hop legend Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy-E. 3888 Workman Mill Rd, Whittier, CA 90601

Hollywood Forever: You can't talk about cemetery sightseeing without mentioning Hollywood Forever Cemetery (formerly Hollywood Memorial, established 1899). Throngs of people visit Hollywood Forever and its Masonic Lodge every year for summertime cinema, indie rock concerts, and even comedy - -all cultural events that really have nothing to do with death or dying.

But the hereafter shall not be ignored! You can celebrate the Day of the Dead at Hollywood Forever's popular Dia de los Muertos, an annual event that takes place throughout the grounds and gives a good chance to explore the cemetery without risk of interrupting a funeral. You can get up close and personal to old Hollywood here, with Paramount Studios directly behind the cemetery, and notable grave sites that include Bugsy Siegel, Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Mickey Rooney, and industrialist Griffith J. Griffith.

Go on a treasure hunt and see what you find with the help of the cemetery's interactive map. Like many of the memorial parks, don't expect to see it all in one visit. 6000 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038

Bonus:
Whenever you're in the Halloween spirit, you can make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. He's buried amidst other film industry notables at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.

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