Fame and the graveyard

A little while ago, my daughter and I went to a cemetery, as we often do. Cemeteries are great places to take kids. They are spacious, peaceful, meditative and perfect places to play zombie tag.*

It was a lovely dark gray rainy morning at a tiny gem of a graveyard in Westwood, hidden between tall office buildings. Driving past on Wilshire Boulevard, you’d never know that you were mere feet from Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, the final resting place of some Hollywood A-listers. Los Angeles and its surrounding cities boast a great many celebrity graves, especially in Forest Lawn and Hollywood Forever, both of which are great for spotting the dead stars, but the smaller Westwood Village and Woodlawn in Santa Monica are my favorites.

I’ve learned, in my time as a grave-spotter of the famous, that big stars often have small graves. Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi have modest plaques in the same row at Holy Cross. Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote and Dean Martin are entombed in marble walls, but without any other significant ostentation. Al Jolson’s grave is probably the largest and gaudiest I have ever seen. You can see it from the freeway. Some tombstones are funny. Merv Griffin’s reads “I will not be right back after this message” and Rodney Dangerfield’s says “There goes the neighborhood.”

Or my favorite:

Seeing the celebrity dead, I feel a closeness, an “ooh, famous person” factor, but also the impermanence of it all. And then I begin to consider the life of the person as a person, rather than as a public figure. As Morrissey sang: “With loves and hates / and passions just like mine / They were born / And then they lived and then they died.”

The great leveler, then, isn’t such a bad thing; it reminds me that these were real people. Similarly, sometimes when I’m in a crowded place, I’ll have a moment of clarity and realize that everyone I’m looking at is a person, a life, not just a blip in the periphery.

With so many aspects of life and death in Los Angeles, the famous and pretty overshadow the regular folk. But as well as seeing the humanity in the famous, I observe the other people buried and wonder about their accomplishments. Who was a great cook? Who wrote poems? What ordinary beauty did each hold dear, and what extraordinary sadness did each face?

During that visit to Pierce Brothers, my daughter and I looked at the plaques, and whenever I knew something about the person, I told her what I knew. Mel Tormé, for example, wrote “The Christmas Song” and Truman Capote was a famous writer, and so on. In between Tormé and Capote, my daughter asked about a grave. It belonged to a young woman named Ashleigh. I told my daughter I didn’t know anything about her.

Here’s the strange part. I took an iPhone picture of Mel Tormé’s grave. I put my phone away. I later took a picture of Capote. I put my phone away. Later that day I looked through my pictures and found that I had a picture of Ashleigh’s grave between the two others. I have no recollection whatsoever of taking this photo.

Though I have an active imagination, I’m not overly given to supernatural speculation, nor have I ever seen a ghost. There are many possible, rational explanations for how this may have occurred, my own forgetfulness being chief among them. Still, rational as I am, seeing her photo freaked me out, for true. I felt as though a lonely person wanted to wave hi to my daughter, who had taken the time to ask about a deceased stranger. At the moment I saw the mysterious picture, I no longer cared about Farrah Fawcett or Billy Wilder or any of the famous graves I’d seen. I wanted to know who Ashleigh was. 

I found a memorial piece online that a friend of hers had written. She’d committed suicide at age 16 by falling from her bedroom window. She had long red hair and a memorable laugh. Her reason for ending her life was not clear, at least not to her friends. Reading about her hit me hard. I had never before felt such intense sadness over the death of a total stranger. I wish I knew more, but there’s not much else I can learn about her, unless I begin to pester her relatives, and I would never do that.

It might be a strange thing to say, but I noticed that after my “encounter” with Ashleigh, my interest in ghost stories spiked. That night, in fact, I read Douglas Clegg’s novella Isis (which I strongly recommend) and believe it or not, it helped me feel better. Whatever your take on life after death may be, there is no denying that ghost stories are part of every culture, whether in agreement or at odds with popular philosophical or scientific views. Since as far back as humans go, we’ve wondered what comes next. Into the space between the empirical and the religious come the storytellers. Fiction is part of how we digest the information that neither science nor religion adequately answers.

My hunger for ghost stories continues. What do you recommend? What do you think ghosts are (or aren’t)? What have you experienced? 

* Zombie tag is a game my daughter invented. The zombie (fast or slow) chases and tags the mortals, but cannot touch a plaque or headstone. If they touch one, the zombie has to turn away from the mortals and count to three. If a mortal within a few feet of a zombie touches a headstone, the zombie has to turn around and yell “brains!” before resuming the chase. The game ends when the last mortal is turned.

When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.


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