On August 23, every year, a woman, dressed in black and donning the veil, carries a red rose to the grave of late actor Rudolph Valentino at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (HFC) in Los Angeles. Few know that Valentino’s grave, one of the most visited at the cemetery, is a “borrowed one”. After his death, screenwriter June Mathis offered her own crypt at the Cathedral Mausoleum as a temporary location. She died a year later and the two of them, friends in life, lie together in death.
The mourner in black, Karie Bible, who has become part of the legend surrounding the cemetery, makes for a fascinating guide. Born on Halloween, she possesses heterochromatic eyes, a love for history, and a passion for vintage black gowns. She has been introducing people to the famous residents of the cemetery for nearly 13 years. It’s an important cemetery because it tells the real story of Hollywood, of its yesteryear stars who are still remembered, and celebrated, decades after their death.
It is a rare tourist who will visit a cemetery when on vacation, actively reading tombstones and building up stories about the souls they contain within. Listening to Bible’s stories about HFC helps me understand that there is value in being a tomb tourist. Cemeteries offer historical and cultural perspective, some famous names, unusual architecture, well-tended gardens, surprise beasts, and silence to sit and contemplate life or just celebrate it. In the Czech Republic, Brno has crypts holding the bodies of Capuchin monks, and the ossuary beneath the Church of St James has remains (skulls and bones) of the church’s former cemetery. Prague has the Old Jewish Cemetery, crammed with the graves of thousands of important Jewish personalities, 12 tombs deep. The most famous grave here is of Rabbi Loew, believed to be the creator of the Golem, an animated anthropomorphic being made of mud.
In most cemeteries, the names are the biggest draw. In Vienna, a friend and I spent two hours combing through the interdenominational Vienna Central Cemetery, in search of the ehrengräber (honorary graves) of Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At 600 acres, it is one of the largest in the world and home to over three lakh souls. So, the search was long. We ended up getting locked in, struggling to find an exit in the rain, with just a startled deer for company. Copenhagen’s Assistens Kirkegård, a green oasis that doubles as picnic spot and cycling route, has author Hans Christian Andersen and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard resting within, marked by simple graves.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery is home to many a star. The biggest draw is Judy Garland, whom Bible calls “the greatest all-round entertainer who ever lived”. Her tomb at the Judy Garland Pavilion is simple, inscribed with the phrase, “I’ll come to you smiling through the years”, and two vases. There are chairs for those who want to sit and pray and a visitor’s book. People who visit are often found weeping or singing, and they leave behind rainbow-coloured offerings. The actress’ remains were brought to the cemetery two years ago. It was a homecoming of sorts; she is surrounded by her The Wizard of Oz family — the dog that played Toto, Adrian Adolph Greenburg (costume designer) and Victor Fleming (director). Toto’s grave doesn’t contain his remains and is just a cenotaph; its unveiling saw a path of yellow “bricks” (petals) and people singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Other notable graves are musician Johnny Ramone, voice actor Mel Blanc, and actor-screenwriter Douglas Fairbanks. Many tombs reflect the interests of the person — there are models of a Steinway, a man climbing a rock, a ballistic missile, a record player, and stormtroopers. As is fitting for a cemetery in Hollywood, on the day of our visit, there is a shoot taking place. It’s a common occurrence, says Bible. Notable shows and films shot there include The Prestige (2006), Under the Silver Lake (2018), S1m0ne (2002), American Horror Story, The People vs OJ Simpson, Modern Family, and Six Feet Under.
The truth is most cemeteries are rarely just a resting place for souls. They can be destinations for vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations, music concerts, film screenings or just tours. HFC has its own funeral chapel and flower shop and hosts screenings, conducts musical events and memorials for the famous names buried within. “The history contained within is fascinating and it doesn’t need embellishment,” says Bible. “You don’t need zombies popping out or ghosts stories here.” Every grave does tell a story. Sometimes, you have to read the epitaphs. At other times, you need a woman in black to fill in the blanks.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘Resting places’. Joanna Lobo is a Mumbai-based writer.