As a child, I remember spending time in cemeteries, mortuaries and funeral homes. This may sound morbid, but my mother has worked as a florist for thirty plus years, owned her own flower shop, and worked at a menagerie of shops owned by various friends. Working in a florist shop in a small town, you experience the great joys in life: the births, anniversaries and weddings. You also witness the sorrow and grief that accompanies the passing of a father, mother, brother, wife. There are casket sprays to peruse in catalogs with teary eyes, hugs to distribute and the solemn “I am sorry for your loss.” As a citizen in a small town, chances are you are truly sorry. You were probably acquainted with the deceased.
I remember being a child and riding along to deliver flowers to a grave site, lagging along behind my mother, who carried a beautiful standing spray and wire frame. I was whining. “Try to be quiet, be respectful, for the dead,” she said. I wondered how the dead could hear, as they were six-feet under, but I quieted myself.” “Don’t step on that grave, Kelsey, show some respect.” To my brother, “Jacob, don’t lean on that gravestone.” Now, as an adult, I understand and act accordingly in a cemetery. Dignity and respect should be accounted for, on behalf of the deceased and their families. This is their final resting spot, and all that their loved ones have left, aside from memories.
When Jake was about eleven, we were helping arrange flowers in a mortuary for a wake. He was hauling in flowers, placing them around the casket, and we were working and chatting. The beautifully polished casket, which would only see the light of day for another day (unless exhumed), was open and there, on the satin lining, lay a lifeless man dressed in his best suit, a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He was old. Jake didn’t see him. He kept talking. Then, he realized that the coffin was open, and went pale from head to toe, peeking at the waxy lifeless visage. The man? body? (what was once a man?) looked so…inanimate. Like an object rather than a person. The conversation was stifled, and Jake quickly turned the arrangements of gladiolus to face the empty chairs. We became solemn. We left as quickly and quietly as we could, closing the door behind us softly. I wondered later, why had we stopped talking? The man wasn’t going to rise up and say “Hey, I’m trying to sleep, here!” and if he had, there would have been two funerals—a result of cardiac arrest from being scared out of our skins by some undead old-as-dirt hooligan.
Since 2002, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery has screened summer movies for the community. Tickets are $15, parking not included, and residents gather to picnic around the gravestones, enjoy film and celebrate the uniqueness of Hollywood and the movie industry. Why a cemetery? Perhaps it is because the venue has space to accommodate a crowd. Perhaps it is part of the draw, to watch a movie in a cemetery (Who does that? Just strange LA people).
The cemetery was established in 1899. Portions were sold to Paramount, and a parcel was allotted for the Beth Olam Cemetery. A whole passel of famous actors and actresses, comedians, composers, musicians and cinematographers share this final resting spot. Attending a film screening in Hollywood Forever, I viewed the experience as a social experiment. Would there be a degree of disrespect towards the dead? How could there not be? I thought the concept was bizarre, a joke.
Arriving at the cemetery, security directed visitors to park their cars inside the cemetery, along the grave sites, and then attendees squeezed between honking cars on the road to walk toward the designated movie area. Security and roping did the job of keeping most people off and away from the grave sites, and the guards had no issues telling walkers to stay away from the headstones and graves, with a firm “Hey, get off that, get away from there, stay on the path.”
The audience was jovial, and relaxed. The general consensus regarding the event? I suppose you could say that Hollywood has never been a place where rules are followed to a T. Scandal and raunchiness are fitting, strangely sandwiched with faded classiness and nostalgic appeal that clings like spider webs, to something (that was? is?) theatrical. Propriety? Probably not. Entertainment? Check, check and double check. Hollywood, host of the glamour of old cinema, collides with a novel cheapness that the community accepts. It’s dirty, it’s eccentric and it’s fun. A man in drag dressed like Monroe high-fives “Superman,” standing over Bob Hope’s star? Well, why not? It’s not to say the class isn’t still there, the names written in lights still shine, there is just coexistence—a sight to behold.
So Clark Gable fell in love as the crowd of contemporary young lovers, old-timers in folding lawn chairs, people from all walks of Hollywood life, gathered in the cemetery (of all places) to enjoy a cinematic classic, “It Happened One Night.” There were snacks and treats available for sale, a DJ, and a photo booth, where people could pose with a majestic moon and stars, recreating the film’s iconic lobby card and poster image. Overall, there was a great deal of respect for the cemetery grave sites, with the smoking area (an area roped off around a small section of gravestones) only slightly seemingly out of place.
I hypothesize that the cemetery’s history has influenced the casual touristic appeal of the cemetery; it’s the only cemetery I have ever heard of to host bands, music events, and film screenings. There are also peacock cages on the property, and a group of feral but well-tended cats. The cemetery faced bankruptcy in 1998, and was purchased and renovated by funeral director Tyler Cassity. Cassity, with a philosopher’s heart, has innovative ideas about cemeteries and the afterlife. Aren’t cemeteries for the living, as the dead are gone? There is the pervading idea that they are for the living, for the living’s mourning and memories, and in the city where space is so valuable, the living can put its rolling green space to other uses.
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery movie may not be the most demure, serious of events, but it fits perfectly into the Hollywood landscape, and like the Hollywood landscape, people are respectful, in their own way. People are ecstatic about the strange, the new, the different, and they give head nods at each other while “doing their own thing.” It’s an atmosphere of “you do you, I’ll do me, and we’ll coexist in the wacky-weird intermingling.” There wasn’t a lot of hub-bub about the film taking place in the cemetery, in fact there was a complete nonchalance regarding the place of screening.
Since the cemetery inters people primarily of the show-biz variety, I like to think (if they can see the party happening over their graves) that the dead are overjoyed at the prospect of having company. I would hope they take pleasure in this strange, morbid tradition the crazy current Hollywood-people schemed up. I can only hope that their spirits are hanging out, dressed in the best of their individual eras, lounging invisibly on blankets, clanking ghostly champagne glasses, and toasting to the art and talents of their contemporaries and successors.