Other than getting a ticket to the Oscars or crashing one of its after-parties, the best way to place yourself within a crowd of Hollywood celebrities is to go to Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, California. The cemetery’s grounds probably contain more stars per square foot than any zip code in Los Angeles. The problem is that their graves can be hard to find.
More than 350,000 people lie buried within Forest Lawn’s 300-plus acres. The grounds cling to the steep slope of the Verdugo Mountains, and the grave markers are embedded flat in the ground, making it difficult to single out any one person. The property’s scattering of aboveground tombs don’t offer much relief, either, as they’re mostly hidden within a maze of gardens and courtyards. Don’t bother asking the people who work there for directions to a celebrity grave—out of respect for the dead’s privacy, they won’t help. Instead, you’re left to your own devices.
Forest Lawn’s flat, open layout, known as the lawn-park design, was the invention of its founder, Hubert Eaton, who established the cemetery in its present form in 1917. It’s the model of organization and efficiency—and one that would be copied countless times over by other cemeteries across the United States. Viewing Forest Lawn from overhead, the sight of tens of thousands of distinctly visible graves all crammed together is astonishing—and utterly creepy.
During the first half of the 20th century, Eaton turned the property into more than a cemetery. It doubled as a spectacle of art, Christianity, architecture and patriotism, drawing millions of visitors annually and millions of dollars into his pockets. In doing so, Eaton established Forest Lawn as a groundbreaking success that changed the face of cemeteries across the country, corporatizing mourning in America in a way never seen before.
Even though Forest Lawn is filled with famous people, one of the reasons celebrities choose to be buried there is for the anonymity it provides after death. There are five other Forest Lawns in the Los Angeles area using the same model. The one in Glendale is the first and oldest, populated mostly with classic stars like Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart. The Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills is a hipper resting place for the modern celebrity crowd, among them Carrie Fisher from Star Wars, Paul Walker of the Fast & Furious movies, and rapper Nipsey Hussle. The others are populated by a tiny smattering of B- and C-list celebrities.
Forest Lawn is divided into sections with dreamy, inviting names like Dawn of Tomorrow, Memory Slope, Whispering Pines and Slumberland. It offers an artificial but impressive air of international culture, displaying eye-popping replicas of world-famous art, like a Goliath-size version of Michelangelo’s David statue. The cemetery’s themed attractions are meant to transport visitors to a cartoonish time and place: Its fake 17th-century Scottish stone chapel, Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, looks stolen from the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even the trash cans are camouflaged as fake logs so the magical experience won’t be broken. The focal point of the property is a tower-filled palace known as the Great Mausoleum.
It’s no wonder that so many architectural critics and journalists refer to Forest-Lawn as the Disneyland of cemeteries. But they actually have it backward. Disneyland, which opened in 1955, is more accurately a Forest Lawn without the graves.
Balding, bespectacled Eaton didn’t lack self-esteem. He went by the godlike nickname “the Builder,” and in the early days of his cemetery, he crafted a mission statement that sounded more like a set of holy commandments than a business plan. He had the Builder’s Creed etched onto a giant stone tablet that still stands in front of the Great Mausoleum.
The creed demeans traditional cemeteries as “unsightly stone-yards full of inartistic symbols and depressing customs” and promises all who read it that the Builder will offer a better place for people to go after their deaths. His Forest Lawn is “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is to darkness, as eternal life is unlike death.”
The Builder envisioned the cemetery as a garden temple, “filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, noble architecture with interiors full of light and color and redolent of the world’s best history and romances.”
His temple would also flow with money. The creed piously concludes by commanding that Forest Lawn shalt be a place “protected by an immense Endowment Care Fund.”
Eaton was born in 1881 in Liberty, Missouri, and moved west after earning his degree in chemistry, hoping to make his riches in silver mines. Things didn’t work out as planned, and in 1911, he moved to Los Angeles, where he took a job selling grave plots on commission to mourners at a new cemetery in what is now Glendale.
While others saw little more than a forlorn, sun-parched hillside burial ground in the suburbs, Eaton pictured a real estate bonanza on a parcel soon to be enveloped by the city. Los Angeles was on the verge of completing an aqueduct that would supply it with endless amounts of water and entirely transform its fortunes. By the 1920s, it would occupy America’s largest metropolitan area.
Eaton was right about a well-placed cemetery’s potential. Consider the math: A typical grave takes up about 30 square feet of space, meaning that more than 1,300 graves can easily be crammed into a single acre. The potential cash return on a cheaply bought piece of land—even if a plot sold for a paltry $10—was immense. The problem that Eaton’s cemetery, and so many others, faced was that it could take a long time to fill the grave plots. More people needed to die to see much of a reward. And young, newly transplanted professionals landing in Los Angeles weren’t likely to die in profitable numbers.
But there was another way. Eaton devised an aggressive presale program aimed at the living. Though the concept of presale, or preneed, had been used in other places, Eaton took it to a creative new level. He pitched people on security for their family if the unfortunate happened. He sold them ever-lasting life, not death, on a patch of sacred land where they could find immortal rest after their earthly terms ended. He wasn’t selling a grave plot, he was selling spiritual, and physical, peace of mind.
Still, the cemetery was floundering in debt. The owners, losing faith in the venture, didn’t see the future potential that Eaton did.
At the end of 1916, Eaton, through a set of aggressive financial maneuverings, and with the partial financial backing of close relatives and a legendary local real estate speculator, purchased a majority stake in the burial ground and became its director. On January 1, 1917, it became Forest Lawn Memorial-Park—a name chosen because it had a happier ring to it than cemetery.
The Builder’s first act as owner was to get rid of all traditional gravestones that jutted above the ground. They announced too loudly “a dead person lives here,” took up too much space, and made maintaining the grounds too time-consuming and costly. Instead, burial spaces at his cemetery would be marked by bronze plaques embedded flat in the earth, carpeted by vast lawns that an industrial tractor mower could quickly speed over.
Eaton’s sales and marketing strategies were equally groundbreaking. He printed splashy advertisements in newspapers, which until then, cemeteries had never done. He ran ads on billboards pitching Forest Lawn as a place with “beauty that comforts” and as an exciting attraction the whole family could visit for fun. The cemetery employed a force of salespeople, deployed to go door-to-door selling prospective customers on Forest Lawn as their home for eternity.
All the while, the Builder was turning Forest Lawn into a destination like none other, tapping into the American cultural psyche. He collected original sculptures from around the world and commissioned replicas of famous artworks that would outshine the originals. Unlike at other cemeteries, most of the art wasn’t attached to a grave. It stood on display separately. The property became a magical kingdom divided into themed sections, bursting with flowers, greenery and statues. He constructed fairy-tale chapels for not only funerals but also weddings. Before long, tourists from around the world lined up to spend the day at Forest Lawn, buying postcards and souvenirs at the gift shops. Eaton created an experience and destination both.
A theme park, as opposed to an amusement park, is an outdoor area intended for entertainment and centered around a specific theme or divided into sections of different themes. By definition, Forest Lawn was the nation’s first theme park, established 13 years before Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, which is generally credited with the title.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Walt Disney was very flattering to his close friend Eaton. When he opened his first theme park, Disneyland, in 1955, Forest Lawn had already been California’s most popular tourist stop for almost four decades. Disney clearly borrowed a great deal from the cemetery’s layout and business model in designing his namesake attraction, so it’s fitting that he later chose to be buried at Forest Lawn.
The cemetery’s popularity as a destination for the living drove up the demand—and prices—for burial spaces. A burial at Forest Lawn was marketed as a privilege, accessible only to the upper middle class and the elite. Like a five-star resort, Eaton offered different levels of luxury and accommodation based on price and location. The Grand Mausoleum, which opened in 1920, is the most exclusive spot. Inside it, Eaton created a Memorial Court of Honor, where its occupants are buried in the floor. You can’t just buy a spot there. You need to be selected as an “immortal” by a secret committee to gain access.
The resting places in the Memorial Court of Honor lie directly beneath a 30-foot-tall stained glass reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Unlike at Westminster Abbey, which houses the remains of British queens and kings, not to mention Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens, few of the so-called immortals buried at Forest Lawn are instantly recognizable—except, of course, for the Builder himself.
But the Builder wasn’t done building. He acquired and displayed the 17-foot-tall David statue and a 13-foot-tall statue of George Washington originally meant to stand in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He hung the world’s largest religious painting—an original portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus—in a cathedral-like auditorium comparable to the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Aside from flashy decorations, Forest Lawn turned itself into a one-stop funeral shop, elbowing out local funeral homes by housing its own mortuary and florist on-site. The cemetery began hawking caskets, memorial markers and even life insurance. Eaton then expanded his empire by opening other Forest Lawns in the area. He showed the immense, untapped potential for profit in the business of selling graves, and the rest of America’s funeral industry took note—and followed his example.
The Builder died in 1966. His funeral was one you’d expect for someone exceedingly rich and not lacking in self-esteem. Forest Lawn was decorated with ostentatious imagery befitting the death of a pope or a saint, like a cross made from 11,000 white carnations and 5,000 red roses. During the services, a chorale sang a booming version of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah; the guest list included the West Coast’s most powerful and famous people, including future president Ronald Reagan. The Builder’s friend Walt Disney was named an honorary pallbearer but couldn’t attend due to his battle with cancer. The ceremony concluded with the Builder being declared an immortal by the former governor of California, then entombed in the floor of the Memorial Court of Honor.
Today, Forest Lawn continues to find creative ways to reach the public and sell them on spending the ever after on its grounds, in the spirit of the Builder. Most recently, it opened kiosks at five Southern California shopping malls selling grave plots and funeral services.
Excerpt from Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden Histories of America’s Cemeteries by Greg Melville. Copyright © 2022 Greg Melville. By permission of Abrams Press, an imprint of Abrams, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.