According to a recent story in the New York Times, consumers in Los Angeles spent 118 percent more than the national average on funeral services from 2007-2012. However, one need not look to surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find evidence of mortuary largesse in the City of Angels. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California (FCASC) assembled a survey of the roughly 40 percent of LA funeral homes that made their price lists available, and it shows some fairly steep prices being charged for even basic services. For example: In funeral parlance, "direct cremation" consists of the bare minimum services of body transport, refrigeration/storage, cremation without a viewing, and ashes in a cardboard box.
According to the 2013 prices surveyed by the FCASC for Los Angeles, a direct cremation at the Alpha Society in Burbank costs a reasonable $695, while in Santa Monica it could set you back as much as $3,345. Many other establishments charge upwards of two grand. When I asked what is considered expensive, Funeral Consumers Alliance national executive director Josh Slocum advised, "For a direct cremation, anything over $1,000 or so is edging into unnecessary territory. $2,000 and higher gets into the unconscionable."
Of course, it's not just LA residents on tight budgets who are being made to shell out cash as they try to do right by their loved ones. (Unclaimed bodies in LA county are a whole other story.) Expensive cemeteries are sometimes called "memorial parks." This euphemism—and the concept behind it—was coined in 1917 by Hubert Eaton, the then-general manager of the Forest Lawn cemeteries (there are seven Forest Lawn locations today in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, plus three in nearby Coachella Valley).
In a 1929 talk before a meeting of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents, Eaton detailed his vision for a place where "the visitor rarely recognizes that he is entering into a so-called 'cemetery.'" One of the slogans (his word and emphasis) would be, "We shall depict life, not death." Consistent with his Christian beliefs, Eaton asserted that "the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, not a beginning" and that the "memorial instinct" driving his vision was the same one that brought the world the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.
Eaton's business savvy and the rise of the American film industry didn't hurt either, as his vision proved quite popular with Hollywood celebrities. According to a 2007 Forbes article, a "distinguished property" at Forest Lawn can cost up to $825,000. Court documents showed that Michael Jackson's crypt at the Glendale location was priced at $590,000. Forest Lawn cemeteries are not the only locations featuring extravagant final resting places. The Al Jolson Memorial Shrine at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City is perhaps the most grandiose celebrity grave in the country. The $84,000 price tag from 1951 works out to nearly $763,000 in today's money.
While these luxury cemeteries have yet to qualify for UNESCO World Heritage Site status like the Taj Mahal, they do have one thing in common: tourists. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but there are several sites devoted to providing information on visiting celebrity graves in the LA area. While one can certainly find famous people buried elsewhere, according to A.J. Marik, an LA resident and senior administrator of FindAGrave.com, "LA has far and beyond the most celebrity burials, especially in terms of the entertainment industry."
Cemeteries in Los Angeles have varying policies when it comes to dealing with tourists. According to one site that specializes in giving tips to celebrity grave visitors: "The friendly folks at Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park, for example, will gladly point out a particular star's grave if you ask them, and at Hollywood Forever they will even give you a detailed map showing the locations of the stars' graves. On the other hand, those in charge of the Forest Lawn parks tend to discourage star-gazing, and they refuse to give out any information about the final resting places of the many celebrities buried there."
When I asked Marik—who is a huge cemetery aficionado himself—to suggest some noteworthy locations, he recommended both understated and lavish sites.
"Celebrity monuments in LA range from the incredibly ostentatious and expensive (Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and especially Al Jolson) to modest and even discreet. Some of the true superstars with unassuming graves include Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, and Errol Flynn."
Most of the aforementioned famous people (with the exception of Errol Flynn and Al Jolson) are located in areas of the Forest Lawn in Glendale that are accessible only to family members and not the general public. In effect, one might say that Forest Lawn has created gated communities for the dead. For those looking to avoid trespassing, Marik recommended the Freedom Mausoleum in the same location, which is "far less patrolled" and features some pretty big names like George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Nat King Cole.
Of course, not everyone interested in graves is in it for the browsing. What's the pricing for more modest options at these well-known cemeteries? Marik advised that "the large, multi-section cemeteries are very expensive, although all of them have relatively fair pricing for those who might have difficulty footing the bill." How about for those who aren't as concerned about having their remains in the same graveyard as Hollywood royalty? He responded reassuringly, "Fortunately, there are hundreds of lesser-known, modestly priced cemeteries, each with their own history and charm (and price scale). A good example is the lovely Mountain View Cemetery in Pasadena. Modest and fairly priced, but in a beautiful setting close to the San Gabriel mountains. There are many other cemeteries much like it to be found throughout Southern California."
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