In my innocence, I thought the only requirement for burial in a cemetery was that you had to be dead. I thought anyone could buy a plot anywhere they fancied and be buried there. Granted, I had factored in that to be buried in say, a Jewish cemetery, I’d have to be Jewish. Or in a Catholic cemetery, I’d have to be Catholic. And after I sat and thought about it for a while, I went even further and reckoned that some cemeteries might even be reserved for residents of the parish or village, town, or city in which they sat. I’d simply assumed that to be buried in a military cemetery, I’d have to have served. But hey, I’ve been wrong before, as I learned on a trip to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
Given the history of Irish immigration to the USA, it shouldn’t have surprised me to find old graves of Irish immigrants in El Campo Santo, a tiny cemetery in the heart of San Diego’s Old Town. What did surprise me though was that they hailed from the lesser known counties of Cavan and Longford. I don’t think I ever met anyone from Cavan until I went to Alaska. Established back in 1849, this physical history book is a rarity in that beside some of the graves it gives a short bio of some of those interred.
After the pomp and ceremony of Hillside Memorial Park, stepping into Evergreen Memorial Park was like stepping back in time. The oldest of the Los Angeles cemeteries, it has plenty to say about yesteryear and says it in ways that would raise an eyebrow today.
Evergreen Memorial Park opened its grounds in 1877 and is LA’s oldest cemetery. Today, these 60 acres are home to some 300 000 graves that chronicle the history of the area. The best maintained sectioned tells, too, of those who are still living: relatives of the Japanese-Americans of the 442 Regimental Combat Unit who fought for the USA during World War II.
I noticed that the markers for children’s graves were topped with a lamb, something I’ve not seen before. They were also smaller in size and for the most part, moss-covered and long-forgotten. Sad, really, to see what happens when the living die off or move on.
There’s an entire section for deceased members of the Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association, but unfortunately few of the markers said what the person did. A missed opportunity there to get creative, but perhaps back in the day, being dead was as good as being done.
Some of the notables, like John W. Bixby, get a special mention in the history of the cemetery. A native of Anson, Maine, Bixby came to LA when he was 21. His family apparently, was behind the development of Long Beach and they’ve lent their name to Bixby Park. Others, like Frank Breed, give cause of death, one line that conjures all sorts of possible stories. There’s a fascinating slide show of the whole place on this site.
But again, there was no map, no indication of who was buried where. The adjacent Potters Field, the only place Chinese bodies could be buried in the county for the longest time, was closed. Unlike the privately owned Evergreen Memorial Park, it is owned by the county and they don’t work on Sundays.
My favourite of the new markers says so much about the man buried underneath. The combination of film, fishing, and firearms made be laugh out loud. The addition of the Royal Flush had be thinking this chap would have made a good cowboy.
In small communities like the acting cohort in LA and with all the famous people living in and around Hollywood, it’s no surprise really that those who’ve passed through the editing-room floor are still hanging out together. And those of the Jewish persuasion have definitely found a home from home at the Hillside Memorial Park on West Centinela Ave. It’s an amazing place, in more ways than one.
Beautifully landscaped with water features and sandstone niches, Hillside Memorial Park is a pleasant place to wander through. Mind you, with all the famous names housed therein, it was surprising that there’s no map of what great is buried where. We called in to reception at the main gate and asked them where we could find those we’d come to see. We had four stops we wanted to make. The ladies checked their database and then noted the section where our peeps were buried. And even with the specifics of Memorial Court, Block 1, Space 3, we still had a divil of a time finding them. But in the search, we came across so much more.
The epitaphs on the memorial plaques were simple and to the point and more than once had me stopping and thinking about what I’d like mine to say. And each one sent me to search for more. Harold Alden, aka the Pillow King, founded Brentwood Originals, which once had a 70% share of the domestic pillow market. Guitarist Rick Fleishman was held in high regard. His website tells me he’s a man I’d like to have met.
Others were simple reminders of how to live life. Like this one from 23-year-old Jeffrey Schlanger. His obituary in the LA Times offers no detail about his life. It simply asks for donations in lieu of flowers to go to MEND- Meet Each Need with Dignity, an NGO that has become ‘one of the most comprehensive and empowering poverty relief agencies in Los Angeles County’. Days later, I’m still wondering at the connection.
The epitaph for Elliott Feldman had me confused. At first glance, the quotation, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seems to be attributed to the Philadelphia Eagles (that’s what attracted me). When I tried to find the connection, I realised he must have been an ardent fan as he wasn’t a player. Beautiful verse though. And yet further confirmation that Jewish epitaphs are far more interesting than others I’ve seen.
I’d come to Hillside Memorial Park, though, to pay my respects to Michael Landon. I hadn’t known he was Jewish, not that knowing would have taken from or added to the thanks I left with him for contributing to a lovely childhood. I grew up with the Laura and Mary and their dad Charles in their Little House on the Prairie and I was quite taken with Little Joe in Bonanza. And as for Highway to Heaven…. But I’d always figured him for Lutheran. No idea why. But hey. What I hadn’t realised was that Landon appeared on 22 covers of Time magazine, second only to Lucille Ball! I’d never thought of him in terms of cover material but I loved his hair. And there’s a story he told about how he used to be champion javelin thrower until the kids at his university shaved his head and he lost his talent – like Samson.
It was a double treat to get to stop by and say hi to Lorne Greene, also of Bonanza fame. Seeing Ben Cartwright get a mention made it all the more special. And on reading up in the man, I discovered that back in the day,
Greene was the narrator for Churchill’s Island, a 1941 NFB film depicting the defense of Great Britain, which received the very first Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.
But I was even more thrilled to see his wife Nancy leave her mark as an independent thinker. I remembered how disappointed I was when visiting Lucy Maud Montgomery at her place of rest on Prince Edward Island and seeing her epitaph list her as the wife of Rev. Ewan Macdonald and no more. Nancy made up for this.
After [Lorne’s] death, Nancy continued to work on making this world a safer place in which to live. Having studied Russian and foreign policy, Nancy was an expert on the relationships of the U.S. and Soviets and the facts about Cold War strategy. She wrote and co-wrote papers on defense issues, and went on to become a charter member of the Center for Security Policy and a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, befriending both former KGB operatives as well as former CIA officials. She was also a founding member of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, which promoted homeland defense (long before September 11, 2001) and preparedness for disasters of all kind.
I’d not realised that Leonard Nimoy was Jewish either. His parents, Max and Dora, were Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who escaped from Stalinist Russia (Ukraine). Come to think of it, I hadn’t known he was of Russian descent. I knew him as Mr Spock, a character he played from the pilot episode shot in 1964 to his final film in 2013 (Star Trek into Darkness). Quite a history. I wonder if he’d had trouble distinguishing between the two. While so many of the graves in Hillside Memorial Park are blank, his was one of the more frequently visited, judging by the stones. Perhaps it’s because his death was relatively recent. I was never a great fan of Star Trek but I was fascinated by his eyebrows.
The last planned visit was to see Shelley Winters. I remembered her as Nana Mary on the TV series Roseanne, but we really went to say hi for our mate JNP, who loved her in The Poseidon Adventure, the role she put on weight for and never got rid of. Born to Austrian parents, Shelley was a woman to be reckoned with. According to her bio:
Though not a conventional beauty, she claimed that her acting, wit, and “chutzpah” gave her a love life to rival Monroe’s. Her alleged “conquests” included William Holden, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando.
Al Jolson’s shrine is a centerpiece of Hillside Memorial Park. The Modernist structure is compelling. The Bible verse – 2 Samuel 23 – is his epitaph. But this wasn’t his first place of rest. When he died, he was buried at Beth Olam Cemetery and it wasn’t until 11 months later, when the memorial was built, that he was reburied at Hillside. Some 20 000 people turned out for his funeral and later, at the re-interring, Jack Benny gave the second eulogy:
To bring laughter and entertainment to the world during one’s lifetime is a wonderful and gratifying thing. Those who, during their span of years, have brought happiness to countless millions can find a purpose to their lives enjoyed by relatively few. But to be able to leave behind so much, so much of one’s self, so much of one’s heart, is a far greater recompense. Thus was Al Jolson doubly blessed.
The Hillside Memorial Park is a fascinating place to spend a morning or an afternoon. When you tire of the Hollywood tinsel and want to get off the freeway, check it out at 6001 West Centinela Avenue, Culver City, CA.
Palm Springs, California. Flat land surrounded by the San Bernardino and the San Jacinto mountains that seem to rise up out of the ground. It’s hot. Bloody hot: 46 degrees in the shade (116 F). Posted signs give you an idea of how old the population is and yet when driving around, I didn’t spot any cemeteries. It took a while to reason why. There are no headstones. The only thing that gives it away is the wall surrounding a seemingly empty field. Read more