Visiting and Revisiting Forest Lawn

Willa: Last June our friend and frequent contributor Eleanor Bowman visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where Michael Jackson is interred. I had never thought much about it before – I guess I just assumed it was a nice cemetery where a lot of Hollywood stars were buried – but Eleanor explained that it was much more than that. For example, she said the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn is filled with life-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s statues, carved in marble like the originals.

Eleanor’s emails sparked my curiosity, so I started doing some research and learned that Forest Lawn was modelled on a very different vision of what a cemetery could be – as a joyful public place where people could experience great works of art, reconnect with nature, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. In fact, it helped change popular ideas about cemeteries. As founder Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917, “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.”

So this year, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we would like to talk about Forest Lawn, about Dr. Eaton’s vision and how it relates to Michael Jackson’s ideas about art, and whether Forest Lawn is an appropriate final resting place for him. Eleanor, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

Lisha: Wow, this sounds like a fascinating topic. I had no idea Forest Lawn had such an unusual history. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us. I’m anxious to learn more.

Eleanor: Hi, Willa and Lisha. And thanks for the invitation to again talk about my favorite person.

Last year, I was visiting my son, Shaw, in LA and realized it was close to the anniversary of Michael’s death, and I wanted to do something, to somehow feel closer, to honor him. And my son, who a couple of years ago had humored me by driving me by the gates to the original Jackson compound on Hayvenhurst, entered into the spirit of things and spent the whole day taking me to places associated with Michael.

Willa:  Oh really? So you and your son took your own private Michael Jackson tour?

Eleanor: Yes, we did. And it was a wonderful day!

Willa:  That sounds really fun! There are professional Michael Jackson tours costing hundreds of dollars, but doing your own tour sounds much better.

Lisha: I agree. Ever since I saw this YouTube video called the “Ultimate Michael Jackson Fan Tour (Red in L.A.),” I’ve wanted to do some DIY Michael Jackson tourism myself:

Willa: I love that video, Lisha. And how wonderful that you were able to do some “DIY Michael Jackson tourism” with your son, Eleanor! Where all did you go?

Eleanor: First we went to Holmby Hills (Holmby Hills is adjacent to Beverly Hills) to see the house he was living in when he was preparing for This Is It. It occupies an entire block, sitting on a steep, pie-shaped piece of land with the house at the top, backing up to the narrow end, and the front looking out over terraced gardens and beyond that over LA. The double garage opens right onto the street and the garage door was open, and I could imagine MJ coming and going from his house. The neighborhood is so beautiful and tranquil, curving narrow streets lined with lovely trees and flowering plants. So green and quiet.

Next we went into Hollywood and I found his star in the sidewalk. That evening we went to La Cabanita, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale which was one of Liz Taylor’s favorites, and we could imagine MJ and Liz having dinner together. (The food was wonderful!)

But the best and most moving part of the day for me was the visit to Forest Lawn. Very quiet. Rolling hills, mostly, with graves flush with the ground. Except, of course, for the huge mausoleum where the rich and famous, including MJ, are entombed – a sort of cathedral for the dead. Elizabeth Taylor’s crypt has beautiful sprays of white orchids on either side of a huge marble block with her name. On top was an enormous statue of an angel.

Elizabeth Taylor crypt 3Willa: Yes, it’s really beautiful. Here’s a picture I found online:

Eleanor: The building is a real cultural experience. I have never seen anything like it. Copies of Michelangelo’s sculptures everywhere, as you mentioned, Willa. Full size. And a huge stained-glass window that is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Really over the top, but still … fitting, I think, for these people who in some way represent our cultural archetypes.

I told Shaw I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, both cultural critiques of the US, both inspired by Forest Lawn, and representing all I knew about Forest Lawn. I mean, Forest Lawn is a cultural icon all by itself, if a cemetery can be an icon.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Eleanor. It really changed the look of cemeteries across the nation. I didn’t realize how significant it was until you told me about it and I started doing a little research. In fact, I knew very little about Forest Lawn. But after you piqued my interest I visited California and went to Forest Lawn – something I probably wouldn’t have done without your encouragement – and I was surprised by how beautiful it is. It feels like a park. In fact, it’s a popular place for weddings, which is pretty uncommon for a cemetery …

Lisha: Weddings? You can’t be serious! I can’t think of anything more antithetical to a cemetery than a wedding ceremony!

Willa: I was shocked when I read that too, so I asked David Macdonald about it. The Forest Lawn company actually has six separate cemeteries – or memorial parks, as they call them – and Mr. Macdonald is in charge of the original Glendale facility, where Michael Jackson is. Toni Bowers and I visited California last November, and before our trip we contacted Mr. Macdonald. He very kindly took us on a tour, and while we were walking around I asked him if it was true that Ronald Reagan was married there. He said yes, that thousands of people have been married there, and it’s still a popular place for weddings. In fact, he said he himself was married there. I was really surprised by all the weddings. That wasn’t at all what I expected at a cemetery.

Lisha: That is so cool you also got to visit! And that is just so surprising about the weddings – I just can’t picture it.

I google-searched and found this photo of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s 1940 wedding, which was held in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, a church at Forest Lawn:

Reagan-Wyman wedding

The newlyweds are sitting in the church’s “Wishing Chair,” a stone monument that says, in part, “good fortune will forever smile upon the bride and bridegroom who sit in this chair on their wedding day.” Forest Lawn’s wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, told the Los Angeles Times that, “In the ’40s, if a couple wasn’t married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren’t married.… It was the elite place to be married.”

Never in a million years would I have guessed that a cemetery church would become “the elite place” for a wedding!

Eleanor: I wouldn’t either, Lisha, and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable with the idea.

Willa: It’s certainly unexpected, isn’t it? But in a way it’s a testament to the success of Dr. Eaton’s vision. He didn’t think a cemetery should be a mournful place, but a place of celebration. In fact, Mr. Macdonald said that before Disneyland was built, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles, and it still attracts a lot of visitors – though not nearly as many as Disneyland, of course. It’s just hard to imagine a cemetery being such a popular place to visit.

Lisha: That’s really something. It sounds like Dr. Eaton really wanted to challenge the way people were accustomed to thinking about death.

Willa:  Yes, I think so too.

Lisha:  I know the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris also attracts lots of tourists, but I thought that was because of their famous “residents” like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, and Frédéric Chopin. Visitors enjoy finding the graves of the historical figures who are buried there.

Willa: And that’s true of Forest Lawn as well. It’s amazing how many famous people from many different spheres have been laid to rest there, including actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians. There’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Gracie Allen and George Burns, Mary Pickford, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Casey Stengel – even Dr. Suess. Here’s a list of over 1,000 famous people buried there.

Eleanor: Thanks, Willa. Pretty comprehensive.

Willa: It’s a long list, isn’t it? But I think there’s something else at Forest Lawn that accounts for all the visitors and the wedding ceremonies. Dr. Eaton envisioned it as a place for the living as well as the dead.

Legend has it that on New Year’s Day of 1917 he was walking the hills at Forest Lawn and suddenly had a vision of what it could be. He came home and wrote what came to be known as “The Builder’s Creed.” It has since been carved in stone on a wall near the entrance to the Great Mausoleum. Here are some of his words:

I believe in a happy eternal life. …

I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, rather than a beginning. …

I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death. …

Forest Lawn shall become a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow, planning for the future or reminiscing of the past; a place where artists study and sketch; where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books …

So Dr. Eaton actually envisioned Forest Lawn as a place for lovers!  In that sense – that it’s a place where lovers stroll, artists sketch, and schoolchildren visit on field trips to see great works of art – it’s very different from most cemeteries.

Lisha: That is such a radical concept – for the end of life to be celebrated as a new beginning, which is how we usually think of weddings, not funerals. It turns the concept of a burial into a celebration of life and love, rather than the ultimate tragic end.

Willa:  I think you’re right, Lisha.

Lisha:  The Forest Lawn website has an interesting story about the very first statue Dr. Eaton purchased for the cemetery, back in 1915, known as Duck Baby. The idea of placing art in a cemetery was so foreign at that time, the purchase created some controversy and was initially rejected by the company’s board of directors. Duck Baby depicts a smiling child, full of life, holding baby ducks in its arms. Installing a beautiful statue like this was such a different way of thinking about burials, many had a hard time envisioning the concept.

Duck Baby

Eleanor: Yes, it is very different. And not everyone has shared or admired Eaton’s vision. Especially not early on. Forest Lawn has had quite a history and has aroused a lot of controversy, often seen as an example of American commercialism and bad taste. Jessica Mitford used it as an example of what not to do. And Evelyn Waugh used it to satirize American life.

Since my only association with Forest Lawn was through those two books, I had some reservations, myself, about it as a proper burial place for Michael Jackson. But, of course, he isn’t really buried, but entombed. For one thing,  it seemed almost sacrilegious to me for him to be entombed anywhere. He seemed to feel himself so much a part of nature, it seemed against everything he believed in to separate his body from his beloved Planet Earth. Cremation seemed more appropriate.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Eleanor. I mean, Michael Jackson basically wrote a love letter to nature in “Planet Earth,” where he said,

In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form

It’s hard to believe the person who wrote those words would want his body to be kept separate from nature and the cycle of life – shut away inside a metal box which was then placed inside a stone box. But I also see how his family and fans would want a place to remember him and memorialize his life.

Eleanor: Yes, I agree. On the one hand, he seemed to feel so in tune with nature, so much a part of it. I like to think of his art as an expression of nature, flowing through his body in his dance. His voice singing nature’s songs.

However, I did a reality check and, although I think cremation would have been more suitable, he was, after all, Michael Jackson and that just wasn’t going to happen. So, on second thought, I decided that there couldn’t be any more appropriate place than Forest Lawn for the King of Pop.

Willa: It’s interesting you should say that, Eleanor, because one of the things I learned at Forest Lawn is that an early definition of “mausoleum” is “a burial place for kings.” So it’s appropriate, as you say, that the King of Pop should be laid to rest there.

Eleanor: I didn’t know that!  So, really fitting for Michael.

Willa:  Yes it is. But Forest Lawn was also an early proponent of cremation. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a book published to celebrate their centennial, “Facilities for a crematory were listed among Forest Lawn’s earliest goals in the articles of incorporation in 1906,” and they built a crematory in 1917, when cremation was a pretty unsettling idea for many people and not nearly as accepted as it is today. In fact, one of their many challenges in the early days was “dispelling myths” about cremation.

But while they still offer cremation services, that isn’t what they are known for. They are known for the Great Mausoleum and the beautiful grounds, and the many celebrities who are buried or entombed there.

Eleanor: Yes, and Forest Lawn is probably the only cemetery in the world that has the resources to protect him from crazed love and hate. The part of the mausoleum where he is is kept locked – which may also have something to do with his gold casket. I don’t know. Do either of you? I couldn’t get in when I visited, so had to content myself with imagining what it was like inside.

Willa: Well, the Great Mausoleum is huge, and while some of it is open to the public, a lot of it is private. There’s the main building, which was built in 1917, and then additions have been added over the years. The first was Azalea Terrace in 1919, and then they continued alphabetically up through Jasmine Terrace. Michael Jackson is in Holly Terrace, which was added in 1949. I found a website that had a historical photo taken in 1952, before the Iris and Jasmine terraces were built. Holly Terrace is highlighted in red:

Holly Terrace photo taken 1952

So the Great Mausoleum is an enormous structure, or series of structures, and much of it is inaccessible to the public, though family members may visit whenever they wish. In fact, I believe all of the terraces are private. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s right. I know Holly Terrace is closed to the public, and Michael Jackson’s family chose to place him there. According to an article in Time magazine published the day of his funeral, concerns about privacy were a major factor in their decision.

Mr. Macdonald told us the Jackson family actually purchased the entire alcove where Michael Jackson is, which includes about a dozen additional tomb spaces in the walls surrounding his crypt. (Mr. Macdonald wasn’t sure of the exact number.) So I assume his mother will one day be laid to rest there, along with other family members as well.

Lisha: That’s really interesting. I have never heard that before.

Willa: I hadn’t either. By the way, you can see the outside of the Jackson alcove in the picture above. It’s the bump-out on the right side of Holly Terrace (the part in red). Here’s a better picture, looking up at the alcove where he is:

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest of the Jackson alcove from the inside:

Michael Jackson alcove in Holly Terrace

The beautiful stained-glass windows surrounding his crypt are called the Ascension windows, and they are based on Nicola D’Ascenzo’s “The Ascension,” which is an elaborate window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The series of stone panels on both sides of the alcove are where additional caskets can be slid into the walls.

Eleanor:  Willa, thank you so much for including this picture.

Willa: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And notice all the flowers. While fans aren’t allowed inside Holly Terrace, Mr. Macdonald said they try to accommodate fans as much as possible. He said that, for security reasons, they can’t place anything by his crypt that is sent from outside Forest Lawn. But if fans purchase an arrangement from the Forest Lawn flower shop, so they know it’s safe, they will take it inside and place it by his casket. Fans from around the world regularly do that, he said, and there were a lot of flower arrangements when we were there.

Eleanor:  I wish I had known that last year. When we arrived, we headed over to the mausoleum and pressed a button outside the door, and a sepulchral disembodied voice from within told us it was closed, but then directed us to the door closest to Michael Jackson’s resting place.

Willa: Yes, there’s an area near the main door to Holly Terrace that has become a perpetual memorial site. When we were there, there were fresh flowers and letters and hand-made posters, and that was in November, which isn’t really a special time in the Michael Jackson calendar – not like June or August.

Eleanor:  Yes. The terrace outside Holly Terrace has become a gathering place for people who have come to honor Michael. There were a few flowers near the door, and love notes. I went to buy some flowers from the onsite florist, and when I came back a few people were standing around talking quietly. I laid my spray down with the others, and then a very nice older man with an Australian accent spoke to me and said he would fill a vase with some water for my flowers so they would last longer in the hot sun. There was a feeling of such love – the love Michael Jackson gave to us in his art and his life we were giving to each other. It affected me really deeply, brought tears to my eyes.

Willa:  That sounds lovely, Eleanor. We didn’t see any fans while we were there, but some fans had been there earlier that morning, and Mr. Macdonald said fans visit pretty much every day. And I was deeply affected being there also – more than I expected. I have to say, I didn’t really feel Michael Jackson’s presence at Forest Lawn. I feel him much more strongly when I’m listening to his music, or watching his short films or concert footage. But it was very moving, and there are aspects of Forest Lawn that make it particularly suited to him, I think.

For example, Dr. Eaton wanted Forest Lawn to be a place filled with statues and paintings, where people without much money could walk in a beautiful place and experience great works of art. So there’s incredible statuary, like very well crafted replicas of Michelangelo’s  David and The Pieta, and a fascinating work called The Mystery of Life by Italian sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri. Here’s a picture:

Mystery of Life 2

There’s also an unusual tableau called Christ and the Children by Vincenzo Jerace. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, “Eaton took great joy in recounting the story” of Jerace’s statue:

He would tell listeners that he believed that Christ must have had a wonderful warm personality to draw children and adults to Him. But most art depicted Him either in agony on the cross or with a very somber expression. Eaton searched and searched for a Christ figure that exuded joy. Being unable to find such an artwork, he assembled a group of Italian sculptors and explained his vision. Most of them replied that they could not do that as their religion taught them that Christ had suffered for their sins and it would be improper to show a smiling Christ. One artist, however, Vincenzo Jerace, told Eaton that he would try. The result is this statue that is also known as “the smiling Christ.”

Here’s a picture of the Jerace statue:

Jerace 2

Lisha: Wow, that is really beautiful!

Willa: Yes, and I really like the story behind it. There’s also incredible stained glass. There’s the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in stained glass, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, which took Italian artist Rosa Caselli Moretti seven years to create using da Vinci’s original sketches. And there are the Ascension windows in the Jackson alcove. There’s also a wonderful place called the Poet’s Corner on a lower level of the Great Mausoleum, where scenes from poetry have been recreated in stained glass. When Toni and I were there the sun was low in the sky and shining directly through those windows, and it just took our breath away. It was indescribably beautiful.

Lisha: I would love to see that. It sounds absolutely gorgeous.

Willa: Oh it was! I tried taking pictures, but I just couldn’t capture that light. I’m not a very good photographer, I’m afraid …

So what I’m trying to get across is that there’s artwork everywhere at Forest Lawn, both inside the mausoleum and scattered throughout the gardens, and the statues of children especially reminded me very much of Michael Jackson. For example, here’s a statue of a girl and a boy looking up at the engraving of Dr. Eaton’s “Builder’s Creed”:

builders creed

Eleanor: Hmmm. Reminds me of Neverland.

Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!

Willa: I think so too, especially the way they’re holding hands, with a puppy in a wagon. Statues like this are one reason I think Forest Lawn is very well suited to Michael Jackson.

Lisha: You know, not having been to Forest Lawn, I’m having a hard time picturing what a cemetery park looks like, with all the artwork and Michelangelo replicas. It seems so unusual. I found some vacation footage that was posted to YouTube that helped me visualize all of this a little better:

My gut instinct is that Michael Jackson would love this place. In many ways, it seems like the ideal resting place for someone who was so deeply committed to making the world a more peaceful place through beauty and art.

Willa:  I agree. It feels right that he should be in such a beautiful place filled with art.

Eleanor: A perfect resting place for an artist, especially a pop artist. Forest Lawn in its early years was a symbol for what is now known as pop culture, but then the juxtaposition of “pop” and “culture” was seen as oxymoronic, if not moronic, reflecting the old British/European snobbery toward the US and its more democratic approach to art, an approach exemplified by American film and popular music. For so long, “culture” and art were identified with the old world, not the new, and with the elite, not the masses.

Willa:  Right, and Dr. Eaton wanted to bridge that divide and make “high” art – or at least duplications of high art – available to everyone, including schoolchildren.

Eleanor:  It is interesting that Forest Lawn and so many of the people who are buried or entombed there are so closely associated with film, an art form that has struggled to be taken seriously and recognized as art, just as popular music has. And that Forest Lawn came in for some of the same kind of criticism – like that dished out by Mitford and Waugh – that dogged Michael Jackson.

For example, both Forest Lawn and Michael Jackson were accused of “commercialism.” The Los Angeles Magazine described Forest Lawn as a “theme-park necropolis,” paraphrasing Jessica Mitford, indicating “Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.”

Lisha: That’s kind of funny, actually!

Eleanor: Yes, and Mitford’s analysis is probably not too far off the mark. I can’t imagine how much it costs to be laid to rest in the mausoleum.

Willa: Yes, but admission is free. Anyone who wants to visit and walk the grounds and view the artwork is able to do that, free of charge. So in death, the wealthy pay to provide art and serenity to everyone. But I imagine you’re right, Eleanor – I imagine it’s very expensive to purchase a crypt in the mausoleum.

Eleanor: Forest Lawn was viewed by Mitford as turning death into an industry, and film and pop music are also referred to as industries – or lumped in together as the entertainment business – or in LA, just “the business.” Certainly, success in these areas does bring fortune as well as fame. And Michael Jackson was often criticized for his focus on sales.

Lisha: Oh, don’t even get me started on the old art/commerce binary! It’s really time to get past that. I’ve noticed it’s the same critics of commercialism who ignore all Michael Jackson albums except Thriller. As a culture, we’re really stuck in the idea that commercial success and artistry are at odds. It’s as if Michael Jackson is somehow “guilty” of having the best selling album of all time.

Eleanor: I know, Lisha. So depressing. And so wrong! He equated sales not so much with money but as an indicator of how many people he was reaching – and changing – through his art.

Willa: Exactly. I interpret this the exact same way, Eleanor. He was trying to change the world, and he needed a global audience to do that.

Eleanor: Also, his commercial success reflected a level of cultural value not usually accorded to black men. So it was very important – especially to him.

Lisha: I agree with you, Eleanor, and I think this can’t be stressed enough. There’s also the cultural idea that only the “original” work of art is of high value, while any duplicate copy, no matter how skillfully done, is a worthless replica devoid of any “real” artistic value.

It seems to me that kind of thinking plays into the devaluation of recorded music, which is often assumed to be of lesser quality because it is factory duplicated and sold to the masses, rather than being reserved for cultural elites.

Willa: That’s a really interesting connection, Lisha.

Eleanor: And, when you think about it, why should art only appeal to the few, and not the many? Why should it be an acquired taste? Forest Lawn, as a symbol of pop culture, is the perfect resting place for the King of Pop.

Lisha: I would have to agree.

Eleanor: Some critics have dismissed Forest Lawn as sort of a Disneyland for the Dead, but I think Michael Jackson would have seen that more positively, given his appreciation for pop culture and Disney. So maybe he would like the idea of being in a Disneyland for the Dead!

Lisha: Hey! Isn’t that literally true? I mean, isn’t Walt Disney buried there?

Willa: Yes, he is – or rather, there’s a private garden dedicated to him where his ashes were scattered. Here’s a link to a description and photos of his garden, which includes a Little Mermaid statue.

Apparently, Walt Disney and Dr. Eaton were good friends, and Disney wanted to be a pallbearer at Dr. Eaton’s funeral but was too sick from lung cancer to attend. He was listed as an honorary pallbearer instead, and died three months later. His nephew, Charles Disney, was also a close friend of Dr. Eaton’s, and wrote a tribute to him after his death.

Lisha: That’s wild. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I also read there is an wonderful art museum at Forest Lawn. An exhibit is on display there now through the end of the year that features the work of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s legendary animators. He is credited with conceiving some of the amazing background animation in Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.

Willa: Wow, and what could be more appropriate than that, given Michael Jackson’s love of Disney and Peter Pan?

Lisha: I agree. That’s an exhibit I would love to see, and I imagine Michael Jackson would have been quite interested as well.

Eleanor:  No doubt about it. Michael Jackson was fascinated by film, especially Disney, and oddly enough the hilly terrain where Forest Lawn is located was once used as a location for films. For example, Birth of a Nation was filmed there.

Lisha: Whoa! Birth of a Nation was actually filmed there, before it became a cemetery?

Eleanor: Yes! Can you believe it!

Lisha: No!

Willa: Wow, I had no idea. That’s mind-boggling.

Eleanor: I mentioned that to my son and he reminded me that when the film industry was new – and it was very new when Birth of a Nation was made – and before LA grew to its current size, a lot of the land surrounding Hollywood served as locations for films, just as LA itself does today. Given Michael Jackson’s interest in film and his desire to be in film, and the personal significance of Birth of a Nation for him, it’s interesting that his tomb is on what once was its set. (“I ain’t scared of no sheets!”)

Willa: That’s really chilling, isn’t it? It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of Forest Lawn as his final resting place. As Joe Vogel talked about in a post with us last year, Birth of a Nation was incredibly influential in shaping American ideas about film and about race – after all, it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. And Joe sees Black or White as pushing back against that racist history.

So how wonderful that people from around that world now come to that place – the very spot where Birth of a Nation was filmed – to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. What a reversal! That’s incredible.

Lisha: You’re right, Willa, that really does turn the tables, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful way of thinking about this. As you pointed out earlier, visitors show up almost every day to pay their respects to Michael Jackson, as one of the most famous and distinguished artists of our time. That’s a far cry from the racially segregated future that Birth of a Nation imagines. It is so strange to think that film was widely applauded and accepted in its own time.

Eleanor: Yes, really strange. Also, in a related vein, in its early years Forest Lawn was segregated – closed to African Americans, along with Chinese and Jews.

Willa: That’s another important point, Eleanor. And now their most famous “resident” is Michael Jackson, attracting people from around the world. So again, it’s like an act of reclamation.

You know, in the beginning Forest Lawn was pretty exclusionary in their art also. The emphasis of their collection was definitely on white European art and traditions, especially the Italian Renaissance, with Dr. Eaton visiting Europe again and again in pursuit of art for Forest Lawn.

But they have become more inclusionary now, both in terms of who’s buried there and what kinds of art are displayed there. For example, on June 29, 2000, the Dalai Lama visited Forest Lawn to bless a new sculpture – the Shi-Tro Mandala – and they seem very proud of the fact that while he was there he recognized Forest Lawn as “a sacred place.”

Lisha: That’s amazing! I had no idea.

Eleanor: Wow. A sacred place. I love it. Well, it is sacred to me because Michael’s tomb is there. But I like the idea that the Dalai Lama sees it as sacred, too.

Willa:  I do too. Well, thanks so much, Eleanor, for making me aware of what a special place Forest Lawn is, and encouraging me to visit!

Lisha:  And thanks for joining us today to talk about it. I learned so much from you both.

Eleanor: Thanks again for inviting me.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on June 16, 2016, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Willa, Lisha, Eleanor: Thanks so much from the heart for this article. I was sitting here just this evening thinking that the anniversary of Michael’s death is only ten days away and unlike the previous six years, I haven’t made any plans to honor him (other than adding my roses to the wonderful annual display). That isn’t sitting well.

    I’ve made many trips to Forest Lawn, including the first anniversary in 2010 when the city of Glendale, totally freaked out by what they expected to be an onslaught of thousands of frantic and frenetic MJ fans, closed all the streets in the area of the cemetery and prevented anyone from parking anywhere in the vicinity. Police and security were everywhere. Media and law enforcement helicopters buzzed around overhead. I walked almost two miles from my hotel in Atwater on that very warm day to get there, carrying a bucket of two dozen Freedom roses I’d brought with me from Northern California. To get into (or back out of) the grounds, visitors were forced to run the impressive gauntlet of massive media presence on the side street near the gates, all of whom were begging for interviews and fan reactions. I think there were more media than fans for at least some portion of the day.

    Once inside the gates it was a long uphill walk to the mausoleum, and crowd control was definitely in force. One of the first things I glimpsed was a long line of black limos and SUVs parked outside the downslope side of Holly Terrace, where I eventually found out Michael’s tomb actually was located. The Jackson family was having a special service inside that morning. That sight brought some reality to the unreality of his death.

    The day was really saved, though, by the unique experience of seeing the fans who came that first year. So many countries were represented, so many conversations going on in so many languages… So many skin colors united by one man who refused to spend his life being a color. I loved it.

    My overriding impression of the mausoleum has always been that it is way too cold and sterile for such a warm and colorful individual. And way too quiet for a man who lived at such an incredible volume! I’ve peeked through the Holly Terrace door a few times over the years and it seemed so very dark. The stained glass windows behind his marble box are indeed beautiful though, and give some comfort when the sun is on them.

    What you’ve done in this article has given me even more comfort about his final place of rest and I’m so glad you’ve elaborated on all the things that actually give Forest Lawn much more life than just a place of death. I agree that he would have enjoyed the statuary and the art, no argument there. The exclusivity of the Great Mausoleum is also a tribute of sorts I guess… But for a man who belonged so much to the world it’s yet another irony in an irony-rich life that he has to be locked away from it. But his fans do need a place they can visit to pay their respects, that’s certain. I do have a fantasy about where he should really be interred, but until some miracle brings that fantasy to reality, I feel much better now about where he is.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words Chris. The more I thought about Forest Lawn, the more I felt like it was really a perfect place for MJ. But now you’ve got me curious about your “fantasy about where he should really be interred!” I would love it to hear more!

      That’s interesting what you said about the “exclusivity of the Great Mausoleum.” It is a really grand place – very expensive – yet ordinary tourists and fans are allowed to gather there in the designated places. MJ had so many moves like that, as Eleanor pointed out, about the mixing of “high” and “low” art. What comes to mind for me is the exquisite hand beaded jackets he wore, which must have cost tens of thousands of dollars, but he paired it with ordinary Levi 501 jeans and Florsheim shoes. Forest Lawn seems that way to me, exclusive, yet a place the public is welcome to enter and enjoy.

    • Hi Chris — Thanks so much for your sharing your memories of your 2010 visit to Forest Lawn. So interesting. I had no idea.

      I am feeling very sad, as the anniversary of his death approaches and wish I could do something. I wanted to go back on the date of the anniversary this year, just to be with other fans, but it doesn’t look like a trip to California is possible. Maybe next year.

      I have a fantasy of the Dancing With the Elephant community coming together some day to honor Michael at Forest Lawn.

  2. Dear Willa, Lisha and Eleanor, it is with much gratitude I express my thanks for your article.
    It truly gives life to Forest Lawn filled with your insights, history and highlights of the exterior and interior. It has been mainly a place of mystery to me, this place of Michael’s tomb. I have no doubt that Michael approves.

    Each year I look forward for the amazing display of red roses for the anniversary of his leaving us. That is such a lovely and loving display each year thanks to One Rose For Michael.
    Lovingly, Gloria

    • Thank you so much, Gloria. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. And I really agree with you, the roses are such a beautiful and loving gesture. How I would love to visit someday and see them for myself on June 25th!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Gloria. It was fun to find so many connections and associations. And, thanks for reminding me of One Rose for Michael. Even tho’ I can’t go back, at least I can do that this year.

  3. Dear Willa. This has been the best so far of your ‘Dancing with the Elephant’ series, and also many thanks to Lisha and Eleanor for their input. I have sent seven roses this year, one for each year since 2009,and to represent each/some of Michael’s talents. I would love some day to visit. But I have one question, perhaps a delicate one, that I have asked several times and never had a satisfactory answer. Why is Michael’s name not engraved on his tomb? Others, like Elizabeth Taylor have theirs. It puzzles me a lot, and leaves room for speculation. Thank you.

    • Hi Nina,

      Thank you so much for you kind words.

      I’m not sure at all about the engraving on the tomb at all. I haven’t seen it myself so I don’t know if the family chose to make it very discreet, or if they preferred for it to be left off. You’re right, that does leave room for speculation. I’m wonder if someone else knows the answer to that.

    • Hi Nina —

      Thanks for your comment, Nina. I can’t answer your question, however. As I never got inside the mausoleum, I didn’t know his name was not engraved. A mystery.

  4. Eleanor: an Internet search on the subject of MJ’s tomb being “unmarked” turns up some controversy on that subject. Some articles say that is so, but some say there is an engraved plaque that can be seen in some (unauthorized of course) photos of his tomb that have been leaked at various times.

    Logically, the reason for anonymity would certainly be the threat of vandalism if the security measures put in place by Forest Lawn were somehow to be breached.

    As my friend Theresa said early on: the only person who can answer for the choice to keep it unnamed, IF that is true, is Katherine Jackson.

    My search also turned up an interesting fact: another Jackson is apparently buried there already. A UK newspaper showed images from May 1990 of Michael apparently attending the funeral of his “much-loved grandmother Martha Bridges” at Forest Lawn. From the photo, I infer that she was buried rather than interred, somewhere in the park’s rolling hills. Might be fun to locate her resting place too.

    Caveat: this newspaper is not known for unbiased reliability or factual reporting.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1205525/Michael-Jackson-buried-unmarked-grave-fans-away.html

  5. Sorry to be joining the conversation a little late. I was on a camping trip (no internet!) and just now catching up …

    Michael Jackson’s crypt was still unmarked last November, which is curious and something I’ve wondered about also. I don’t think it’s for security reasons, since his crypt is surrounded by flowers for him and notes written to him. So it’s pretty obvious who’s interred there, even without a name on the crypt.

    I wonder if the family is simply having a hard time coming to consensus on what to write. There may be some debate about whether to include just his name, or his name and a quotation, or … Once the words are literally “carved in stone” into the front of his crypt, you can’t change them, and he has a large family with a lot of different opinions and viewpoints. I can see how this would be a very emotional issue, and could take quite a bit of time to decide. Reaching resolution on decisions like that can be part of the grieving process sometimes, and that may be part of it also.

    That’s interesting, Chris, that Michael Jackson’s grandmother is buried at a Forest Lawn cemetery also, though apparently she’s at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills and he’s at Forest Lawn in Glendale, about 12 miles away. The Daily Mail is confusing cemeteries, which is actually rather easy to do since Forest Lawn has six different locations, and they are all called “Forest Lawn.”

    • Thank you for the clarification on Grandmother Jackson’s whereabouts, Willa. Typical of many newspapers in the UK, no surprise there, who don’t get their facts straight where Michael is concerned.

      And really… does the most widely-recognized man ever to live on Planet Earth really need an inscription? I wonder.

  6. Hi everyone. Sorry to come to the party late as well – have also been away.

    I very much enjoyed this blog, and as usual, learned a whole lot more new facts. It is very unlikely that I will ever visit US so am glad to know more about Michael’s resting place. Hard to believe that it has been seven years already.

    I had no idea that his tomb is ‘unmarked’. Does seem a bit odd, but I do feel that it needs to have his name on it for future generations and the sake of HiStory.

    I really believe that cemeteries do not have to be places of doom and gloom, but beautiful places that celebrate the lives of the people interred there. Am sure that Michael would have loved the sculpture and the whole vibe of the place.

    There is a cemetery in the suburb of Staglieno in Genoa Italy started in 1851 (never visited but have a dvd about it) that is full of beautiful tombs with amazing sculpture and statues in celebration of the people interred there. Obviously most of the tombs were provided for the wealthy and middle class, but there is a tomb with a beautiful statue of a woman who was a hawker of bread and nuts at the local fair, who saved all her life for her memorial.

    Love the idea of the chapel at Forest Lawn being used for weddings as well. Sounds a very special place altogether, and am very glad to know more about it, and get a feel for it.

    • “I really believe that cemeteries do not have to be places of doom and gloom, but beautiful places that celebrate the lives of the people interred there.”

      Hi Caro. I agree, and it’s a much nicer way to think about cemeteries, isn’t it? I remember visiting a church in Vienna, I think it was, a long time ago. It had a cemetery beside it, and each of the cemetery plots was like a small flower garden, each one a little different. It was beautiful. Family members would come regularly to tend the tiny “gardens” and think about their loved ones, and I thought it was such a lovely idea.

      Like you, I really like the thought that Michael Jackson is in a place that celebrates life, and a place that makes us rethink our ideas about cemeteries and death itself. It seems appropriate for someone who was so fully alive, and whose art led us to rethink so many things, such as our ideas about race, family, age, religion … so many things.

      By the way, here’s a post by hannahkozak with photos from this year’s memorial gathering at Forest Lawn.

      • Willa: Thank you for the link to Hannah Kozak’s article – unfortunately wasn’t able to make the trip to Forest Lawn this year and her photos of the amazingly creative fan tributes from around the world were wonderfully satisfying, not to mention humbling. The long distances traveled to be there and the many hours obviously spent in designing and executing the great variety of contributions are certainly the finest tribute of all…

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