Looking Down at the Stars

We all heard the big news when Hugh Hefner died. His first playmate, Marilyn Monroe, the celebrity that helped launch his controversial magazine to super stardom, was someone he had never met. In spite of this fact, he chose to buy the last piece of real estate he would ever use right next door to her. After decades of a life that few of us can possibly imagine at the Playboy Mansion, Hugh lies for the rest of eternity next to Norma Jean at Pierce Brothers Cemetery.

Pierce Brothers is unlike any cemetery you’ve ever visited before. It’s in  the heart of Westwood and one of the best places on the planet to try a little cemetery tourism. The grounds are hidden by tall office buildings and surrounded by a wall making it highly unlikely to just accidentally stumble into the place. It’s one rectangular 2.5 acre swath of gardens spanning two blocks of prime Los Angeles real estate. Like most cemeteries, it’s open to the public. The rich and famous you could never meet when they were living, rest here possibly with the last hope that they wouldn’t be forgotten…and they’re not forgotten. Did you ever want to meet Marilyn Monroe? Guess what? She’s here. You can bring her flowers and pay your respects to her and her next door neighbor, Hugh.

Walking among the dead might seem a little macabre to some. When I was a child my mother scoured cemeteries to find relative’s headstones and do genealogical work. I hid in the back of our paneled station wagon hoping my friends wouldn’t pass by and recognize our car. Then one day something changed. I realized that I enjoyed visiting graves of famous people and learning their story: it was part scavenger hunt, history lesson, ghost adventure and Facebook check-in rolled into one piece of granite (or more). Sometimes you find unusual graves of people who are only famous because of their outrageous memorials. Sometimes the famous are hidden so the average person can’t find them. For every grave, there’s a story of how and why they ended up there. How did Jim Morrison end up buried in Paris? Why is Benedict Arnold buried in London? How did Bonnie and Clyde end up in different cemeteries? Every tomb has a tale.

The first headstone I spotted on arrival was Rodney Dangerfield. The man who “never got any respect” seemed to be getting some at last. His epitaph simply read….”There goes the neighborhood”; A comedian to the end. Nearby Mervin Griffin’s grave reads “I will not be right back after this message”. Farrah Fawcett, a few stones down had no comment. Maps are available that show where the stars are buried to help you with your search. In a cemetery so small with so many notables, it’s interesting to just walk around and see who’s names you recognize. Marilyn and Hugh are in a crypt on the back right wall. Other famous residents include James Coburn, Dean Martin, Natalie Wood, Roy Orbison, Carroll O’Connor, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Don Knotts, Eddie Albert, Donna Reed, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, George C. Scott, Burt Lancaster, Carl Wilson, Eva Gabor, Bob Crane, Frank Zappa and Truman Capote. You won’t find Roy Orbison’s grave without a map. It’s unmarked and lies slightly above Frank Wright Tuttle’s grave. George C. Scott is also hidden in the cemetery without a stone.

Hollywood Forever is another cemetery full of famous stars and as the name implies, it’s in Hollywood. It’s much more spread out than Pierce Brothers, so you’ll need a map to get started or you could just drive around until you spy Johnny Ramone playing the guitar. I’ve always said that if you’re gonna be a rockstar, don’t let a little thing like “death” dissuade you. His statue is right across from one of the largest plots in the place, Douglas Fairbanks. Douglas’s memorial has a long thin pool in front, like a mini-Taj Mahal. Canines are seldom found outside a pet cemetery, but Toto has special status with a memorial a few steps away from Mickey Rooney. Inside the building Rudolph Valentino and Peter Lorre can be found. Mel Blanc, Cecil B DeMille,and  Bugsy Siegel are all nearby.

Hollywood Forever is frequently featured in films as the go to set for burials, but the cemetery doesn’t just limit itself to just being a filming location. You can also watch movies here.Throughout the summer cult favorites are played on a giant screen on the grounds. Moviegoers bring picnics, chairs and alcoholic beverages to  party…..and people are (ahem) just dying to get in.

Forest Lawn has two popular locations. Glendale has residents such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Walt Disney, WC Fields, and Michael Jackson. This cemetery isn’t as tourist friendly and it’s so large you’ll have to have a map to get around. The grounds are beautiful, so much in fact that both Ronald Reagan and Regis Philbin chose the location to have their weddings. There’s over a quarter of a million people buried here and the largest number of stars you’ll find anywhere, but you’d better be prepared to do some “digging” around.  Hollywood Hills doesn’t have quite the star power as Glendale, but Lucille Ball, Stan Laurel, Bette Davis and David Carradine are a few of the notables interred here. This cemetery is also very large and is only about ten minutes away from the Glendale location.

If you’ve never visited celebrities at a cemetery, you might be surprised at the popularity of tomb tourism. Some graves have a constant stream of visitors with cameras in hand and a list of potential stars to visit. If you’re interested in finding a particular person, famous or not, findagrave is a great place to start.