The Disneyland of Death
The Disneyland of Death

The Disneyland of Death

{reading time: 8 minutes}
The Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Liberty Bell

But I feel drawn toard the chanting hordes
Seem to mezmorize, can’t avoid their eyes
—Iron Maiden | The Number of the Beast | 1982

If you’re just getting into the Bible, I recommend you start at the end and work your way back.

The book of Revelations was written by John the Baptist, one of the four disciples of Christ—known collectively as the Evangelists—to pen the gospels of the New Testament. Like John the Beatle, John the Evangelist is, by an order of magnitude, the most metal guy in the group. And Revelations is his magnum opus.

Typically, I would reread the text, spiral down a research rabbit hole, and try to present a thoughtful, fresh perspective.

I’m not going to do any of that.

Instead, I’ll rely on my shoddy memory, Catholic school education, and Iron Maiden.

Revelations starts with the end of the world and gets more exciting from there. Jesus comes back as promised. Those still alive for the big show are split into two teams: good people on the right hand of the Lord and bad people on the left.

So what becomes of the movable middle — folks who are somewhat good and somewhat bad? John thought of that.

Before Christ actually returns, the world is duped by an anti-Christ who tricks people into thinking he’s legit-Christ. The dupes are marked for easy apocalyptic identification, prominently on their forehead or right hand with the sign (or number) of the beast. It’s like the TSA pre-check of the end times. Then the devil comes up with his greasy hands and gets his due.

There’s a seven-headed dragon with seven horns on each head and seven rings on each horn. Wait, that sounds like too much. Maybe it’s one horn per head. Whether this is crucial to the plot or gratuitous special effects, like most dragons, I can’t recall.

There are fires and plagues and kingdoms reclaimed and four horsemen, each wielding their own brand of mayhem.

Next come the zombies.

This book is all killer, no filler. It would seem anti-climactic not to have a zombie fight, so let’s go with that. This is why our cemeteries are organized by religion, so we know who our teammates are. If, while alive, we Catholics have an arm or something else of significance removed, we take it to the grave so we can bring everything we’ve got to the zombie fight.

The newly un-dead vie for the Lord’s affection in an epic battle. Or maybe it’s a dance-off. Either way, the winners earn the right to join the living on the right-hand side, and the losers can go to hell.

Certainly, the rapture will be televised. Opening ceremonies will be broadcast live from the spiritual and cultural center of the world, the cradle of civilization.

Here’s my pitch for what that show could look like:

Opening scene: A drone shot of sprawling green hills, the iconic Hollywood sign is visible in the distance. The camera descends to mere inches off the ground. It flies past a sprawling mosaic mural of America’s founding fathers doing important founding father things. The drone then flies through the dancing waters of a majestic fountain and pitches up sharply, coming face-to-face with a massive bronze Abe Lincoln.

The host stands atop a lush green hill. Head bowed. Arms outstretched. He looks up and speaks:

Host: Live from Hollywood, this is the Ultimate Battle of the Stars. Two teams will compete, but when the hour is through, one will sit on this side (gestures with right hand) with bragging rights for eternity. The losing team, well, (gestures with left hand, as the audience chants the catchphrase) you can go to hell!

I am your host … (holds hand behind ear, egging on the crowd with the other hand).

Seated on white wooden folding chairs with floral-pattern cloth covering, the audience responds enthusiastically.

Audience: Who am.

Host: I can’t hear you. I said I am your host …

Audience (roaring): Who am.

Host, confidently: I am.

Audience: Who am.

Host: I am.

Audience: Who am.

Host: Alright, let’s get to it. Tonight’s competition will pit stage against screen, rockers against actors, hard-drinking narcissists against hard-drinking narcissists.

Let’s meet our first team, the Screen Gems:

She’s got her eyes on the prize, 100 films in the bag, and an Oscar in each pocket. It’s the first lady of the silver screen, Miss Bette Davis.

Our next contestant is in a league of her own. Raise a glass of milk and Pepsi; it’s Penny Marshall, everyone.

We’ve got a lot of good-looking stones here, but nothing to compete with the great stone face himself. He’s been silent long enough. Let’s hear it for Buster Keaton, ladies and gentlemen.

She’s back from the edge and ready to win. Call her princess. Call her admiral. In my galaxy, she’s a queen. Please welcome Carrie Fisher.

The last Screen Gems contestant could pitch for either team tonight, but she’s following in her daughter’s footsteps and fighting by her side. It’s the inimitable Debbie Reynolds.

Alright, Screen Gems, let’s meet your opponents. They say singing is like praying twice. Well, if I didn’t get back to you, it’s because these guys have been filling up my earholes with their sweet, sweet music for decades.

Let’s meet the Croony Tunes:

He’s metal’s master maloik mitigator. A friend of the devil? A friend of mine? Let’s find out. Holy moly, it’s the Holy Diver, Ronnie James Dio.

He’s put more kids through college than I have. He, too, could be playing for the other team tonight—if Baywatch Nights counts as acting, that is. Pick up the phone for this baritone and say hellllllooooooooowww to Lou Rawls.

He was born in England, but he’s been baptized in the waters of the Sunset Strip if you know what I mean (makes a drinky-drinky hand gesture). He’s tonight’s wildcard; it’s the Ace of Spades, Lemmy Kilmister.

Some walk by day. Some fly by night. Some walk on water. But who’s keeping score, really? (host pauses, looks into the camera, seriously) Me. I am. I’m keeping score. That’s my job. (returns to peppy, host voice) Anyway, he’s the acrobat of scat. It’s Al Jarreau, everybody.

And ast but certainly not least, he’s Mister Showmanship. He’s a one-man Disneyland. His brother and his mother are here to cheer him on. Light the candelabra for Liberace.

Cue the theme music and cut to commercial.

If Revelations is just as I remember it, and Jesus is American, then Armageddon’s first episode will surely be broadcast from Forest Lawn Memorial-Park.

While I cast my personal favorite celebrities for the pilot, these hallowed grounds — spread out over six Los Angeles area cemeteries — hold enough star power for at least three seasons: Don Knotts, Michael Jackson, Dwight Frye, Sandra Dee, Dean Martin, Paul Walker, Sammy Davis Jr., Isabel Sanford, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, John Ritter, Andy Gibb, Brittany Murphy, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lalane, Tom Bosley, Sam Cooke, Lauren Bacall, Scatman Crothers, Walt Disney, Ricky Nelson, Michael Hutchence, Gene Autry, Jack Webb and Morey Amsterdam.

Forest Lawn is the brainchild of Dr. Hubert L. Eaton, father of the modern cemetery.

To varying degrees, the point of every man’s life is to cheat death. But Eaton wanted more than to cheat death. He wanted to rebrand it. He called himself the Builder, and his Builder’s Creed lays out his vision:

I  shall try to build at Forest Lawn a great park, devoid of misshapen monuments and other customary signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful flowers, noble memorial architecture, with interiors full of light and color, and redolent of the world’s best history and romances. I believe these things educate and uplift a community.

In 1912, young entrepreneurs Hubert Eaton and Charles Simms contracted to sell burial plots for the struggling Forest Lawn Cemetery in Tropico (now Glendale), California. Three years later, he changed the name to Forest Lawn Memorial-Park and started to position the cemetery as more of a welcoming place for the living and less a foreboding place for the dead.

Eaton eschewed upright headstones in favor of ground-level bronze markers. He built a funeral home and three non-denominational chapels on site. But his most significant contribution was to fill the grounds with faithful replicas of fine art and architecture from around the world.

Eaton pioneered what the industry calls pre-need sales — the sale of funeral plots to people young enough to enjoy them for decades before their untimely time arrives.

Forest Lawn was divided up into themed sections with ambitious names like Vesperland, Dawn of Tomorrow and Whispering Pines. Infants were buried in Babyland, children interred in Slumberland. Forest Lawn added a location in the Hollywood Hills and others throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area, ultimately earning the moniker the Disneyland of Death. This was meant as a compliment.

While Forest Lawn was conceived as a non-denominational resting place, it was far from inclusive. For decades, the cemetery refused to inter Black, Jewish or Chinese people. Nevertheless, Forest Lawn became a Holywood hotspot for the living and the dead. Its popularity hasn’t waned in a century.

Funerals were not the only major life events to take place at Forest Lawn. More than 60,000 people have been married in its chapels, including Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman in 1940.

The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel at the Glendale location is modeled after the Maxwelton Chapel in Scotland. Movie stars Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were wed here.

The Glendale park has hosted three full-size, faithful marble copies of Michelangelo’s David. The first replica, carved in 1937 and identical to the original, save for a strategically-placed fig leaf, was felled by 1971’s Sylmar Earthquake. The next David ditched the fig leaf (it was the ’70s, after all) and was mounted on an earthquake-proof Teflon pedestal. He lasted until 1994, when the Northridge Earthquake toppled him. David number three stood until March of 2020 when he again tumbled and smashed to flinders. This time, the cause was not an earthquake but the sheer gravity of 2020. A fourth David is likely on order.

Hubert L. Eaton with his original David replica

Eaton and Forest Lawn became central characters in Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One, about British people trying to make it in Hollywood without demeaning themselves. Dr. Hubert Eaton, the Builder, became Dr. Wilbur Kenworthy, the Dreamer. Forest Lawn became Whispering Glades.

In 1947, MGM brought Waugh to Hollywood, hoping to secure the film rights to his novel Brideshead Revisited. Waugh was angered by the book’s popularity in America, certain that nary a slackjawed Yank could pick up the eschatological subtext it laid down. His time in Hollywood didn’t lead to a film deal (MGM lost interest after he explained what the book was really about). But it did lead to his next work. Eaton himself gave Waugh a tour of Forest Lawn. There, the author found a goldmine of literary fodder. If we did not understand his last book, this time, he’d get right down to earth in a language that everyone here can easily understand — entertainment, celebrity, and the rituals of death.



The Builder and the Father

At a cemetery anywhere else in the country, a copy of the Liberty Bell or the grave of Scatman Crothers would surely be the main draw.  But given Forest Lawn’s embarrassment of riches, these attractions barely register. Forest Lawn’s replica sits relatively unnoticed inside the Hall of Liberty American History Museum at the Hollywood Hills location. Outside, the Court of Liberty boasts statues of Abe Lincoln and George Washington and the largest historical mosaic in the U.S. The 163-foot-long Birth of Liberty is comprised of ten million pieces of Venitian glass.

Abe Lincoln Statue Forrest Lawn Memorial-Gardens
Forest Lawn’s 16-foot bronze Abe Lincoln by Augustus St. Gaudens

If we think of cemeteries as eschatological arenas, waiting neatly mowed and patiently for the end of the world, then there is no better venue in the world than Forest Lawn. Until the world ends, we’ll just have to settle for acres of dead celebrities and some really nice replicas.


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