I See Dead People

A Different Type of Star Gazing in Los Angeles

Visiting celebrity graves in the city of angels.

By Bill Wiatrak October 3, 2018

A view of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in LA.

We all heard the big news when Hugh Hefner died. Despite the fact that he'd never met his first playmate, Marilyn Monroe, who helped launch his controversial magazine to super stardom, 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 in Los Angeles.

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 accidentally stumble upon the place.

The rectangular, 2.5-acre swath of gardens spans two blocks of prime Los Angeles real estate. Like most cemeteries, it’s open to the public. The rich and famous rest here, possibly with the last hope that they wouldn’t be forgotten. And they’re not forgotten.

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 stories: It was part scavenger hunt, history lesson, ghost adventure and Facebook check-in rolled into one piece of granite (or more).

Image: Bill Wiatrak

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. A comedian to the end, his epitaph simply reads, ”There goes the neighborhood." Nearby Mervin Griffin’s grave read, “I will not be right back after this message.” Farrah Fawcett, a few stones down, had no comment.

Maps of the celebrity graves are available, but in a cemetery so small with so many notables, it’s interesting just to walk around and see whose names you recognize. 

Forever neighbors, Marilyn and Hugh.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Monroe and Hefner 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, though. It’s unmarked and lies slightly above Frank Wright Tuttle’s grave. George C. Scott is also hidden and without a stone.

Hollywood Forever cemetery

Hollywood Forever is another cemetery full of famous stars, and, as the name implies, it’s in Hollywood. It’s far 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. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

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 so beautiful 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."

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 10 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.

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