The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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The final rest of the rich and famous

One thing is certain: money, property and prestige can’t insulate you from the final destination. Ancient wisdom dictates we don’t want any of the movers and shakers to move or shake. Family secrets would be laid bare. Along the neatly manicured lawn and trimmed curb lines framed by white granite walls lie the mortal remains of the who’s who in celebrity alongside the power brokers of Old Los Angeles. One whisper from them and the air of mystery and the mystique of power and money would disappear forever. In the end, they were just people who lived and ultimately died in sunny, smoggy and sometimes sinister L.A.

The surroundings have grown around the Sunset Cemetery renamed Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, both from the ground up and for what has become coveted space below ground. Coveted in L.A. might mean the corner office or the number one table at the best restaurant in town. This may be the one spot harboring both money and character alongside a cast of characters. There is almost as much space topside for visitor parking as there is ground for burial. On any given day, a contingent of construction workers with their trucks and vans crowd out what was once open space. It looks like a construction site.

Reinventing the graveyard is a challenge in these times of tight space and expensive real estate. The once small local cemetery has reached capacity, according to Eve Garibay, Family Service Counselor for Pierce Brothers.

“The original two and one half acres have long since been filled,” Garibay said. “There’s no more room in the ground.”

The once open skies have been obscured by all of the building and development surrounding the small lot.

“There was originally a perfect western view of the beautiful sunsets,” she said.

Words like “graveyard” have given way to “cemetery”, “coffins” to “casket,” and “grave digger” to “grounds worker,” according to General Manager Jolene Mason.

“We don’t call them grave diggers anymore,” she said.

The surrounding area was originally part of the city of Sawtelle, according to the city records and was incorporated into the City of Los Angeles in 1922 along with Hollywood and Wilmington.

“The area was comprised of vegetable farms owned and operated by Japanese American Farmers,” said Randall Robinson, a retired cinematographer and frequent visitor to the cemetery.

“I come down here from the UCLA liver transplant support group for the peace and quiet,” he said. “It’s just so peaceful here.”

Robinson has been coming here for many years and has become an unofficial tour guide. Robinson eagerly walks from one spot to another revealing obscure plots where some of the greatest actors and entertainers are buried or interred. Lew Ayres, Burt Lancaster, John Cassavettes, Miss Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Carroll O’ Connor, Bob Crane, Walter Mattahau? and the list goes on and on.

The cemetery opened and was dedicated by “the Patriotic Citizens of Sawtelle,” in 1905, according to the six-foot marble obelisk standing in front of the main office.

Robinson said the Janss investment Company founded and developed Westwood Village around 1925 along with a generous donation of one square mile of real estate to Southern University and renaming it UCLA.

“Westwood Boulevard was a greenbelt back then,” he said.

The celebrity world swarmed this peaceful spot in August of 1962 when Marilyn Monroe was interred to her last resting place. Adoring fans have stopped to pay tribute to the fallen icon, leaving the polished granite stained with 45 years of fingerprints. Fresh flowers are replaced daily. Unfortunately, on one of my several visits to the cemetery, one of those adoring fans had inscribed a tacky note to Marilyn on the very face of her crypt. The red lipstick was efficiently cleaned off.

Carol Brown, administrator for Pierce Brothers, fielded all inquiries about Halloween and the security of the cemetery.

“We really can’t say,” she said. “With fans like that, who needs enemies?”

Directly across the lawn from Monroe lies Mickey Rudin, Hollywood’s most powerful and influential celebrity lawyer and as an attorney, the keeper of secrets, now dead and buried. Inquiring about the empty crypt next to Monroe, all I got was a shrug from Brown. Hugh Hefner’s spot is rumored to be next to Monroe, however that spot may be up for grabs.

The price? Another shrug. Nobody is talking.

Ulf Rashgeber from Thuringia, Germany came to pay his respects. In his hand was a book titled “Kalifornien” with a glossy photo of the Hollywood sign on the cover.

“I always had a story in my head about this place,” he said, in a thick German accent. Rashgeber is an editor for what was once an East German propaganda newspaper called the Oschuringer Zeidung.

“This is my first trip to California,” he said. His book was earmarked on the Westwood cemetery’s page as well as some stops in Hollywood.

“I had to see the celebrity sites for myself,” he said. “Next stop is San Francisco.”

Aspiring actor Bjorn Alex Olsen from Trondheim, Norway was walking the grounds with his mother Kirsten.

“A good friend of mine was here years ago and told me about it,” she said.

“My son and I have been in LA for three weeks and we have seen all the sights for ourselves.”

“This is a funny place for a cemetery,” said Bjorn. Robinson assured him that when it was dedicated as a cemetery, there wasn’t much to see around here.

“Beet farms, I think,” Robinson said.

One of the oldest grave belonged to a George H. Geddes, dated 1843-1907. The name is neatly carved in block letters into red granite. Geddes was old enough to serve in the Civil War and according to Robinson, he “came out west and died here.”

With post mortem anonymity, Geddes rests with the elite of the modern film world.

The oak trees in the park are links to the interred. The roots secure the past to the present. In perpetual contact with the beloved below, the branches and leaves reach for and touch the sky. As a reminder of our own mortality, the grave markers keep up with the times. Simple markers make up the majority of the older plots on a lawn that has been watered with 100 years of tears cried at funeral ceremonies and visitors. The tears keep an invisible connection to the loved ones.

Some of the best quotes come from the grave markers. The grandiosity of Hollywood doesn’t stop at the cemetery. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s tombstone reads, “There goes the neighborhood.” Jack Lemmon’s simply says “in.” Filmmaker extraordinaire Billy Wilder makes the claim, ” I’m a writer? but then? nobody’s perfect.”

Simple epitaphs like Father, Mother, Brother and Friend are like a short obituary, distilling the essence of a life lived. Sometimes there is nothing more that a name and date to remember a U.S. soldier or Marine. “Frank L. Smith? Co L?1st Il?L Cav?Span Am War.”

A worn and chipped tombstone is all that speaks for a man that may have ridden with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.

The memories and mortal remains of all who rest here are safe from ghouls, vampires, adoring fans and souvenir-hunting paparazzi. Like the quiet sentinels for the brave men of Sawtelle, California, the Westwood Memorial Park staff will keep them safe. But they’re not saying how.

The many lives touched by love, tragedy, greatness, notoriety and sickness have a special place here. What survives is the memory of the person who once walked the sun-bleached streets of Sawtelle or Westwood Village. The anonymity of an old cemetery is for the remaining loved ones and now some adoring fans.

In the corner of a newer section of the cemetery, reclaimed on what was once the caretaker’s house, the family plot has b
ecome very expensive real estate. There is a neatly groomed section relegated to the smaller cremation urns. In a peaceful setting alongside a small fountain and a shade bench, a young woman named Alexandra rests, 1962-2000. To the visitors and fans, it’s just another bronze plaque. Like Gussie H. Squires, 1892-1910, Alexandra was a living, breathing person. Never to be immortalized on film, Marilyn Monroe and the rest are in good company with her there.

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