LA cemeteries have an aura all their own

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29, Michael Jackson will finally be buried.

It’s about time, especially after more than a month of public mourning that manifested itself in a larger-than-life mural of his visage on Vermont Avenue, a fashion spread in the Fall Fashion issue of Harper’s Bazaar and countless broadcasts of his decades of work.

At the end of the media tunnel is the burial at Forest Lawn-Glendale. It might sound ordinary to the non-Angelenos ear, but the mortuary- slash-cemetery is strongly attached to my native sense of death.

Forest Lawn was where everyone was buried, be it in the original Glendale location or the nine other memorial parks scattered throughout the state. As far as I know from my hazy childhood memories of paying respects to various passing relatives in Forest Lawns in Hollywood Hills, Covina Hills and Cypress, each facility looked the same. Each featured sprawling, green highlands and a central white plantation-style manor that housed the executive offices and mortuary of the grounds.

Forest Lawn, oddly enough, was also a place where schoolchildren visited historical reenactments and interacted with Betsy Ross (oooh!) and Father Junipero Serra (during mission report season, of course). Even odder still, my cousin graduated from high school at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, and her class performed a choir version of Tupac Shakur’s “Changes.”

It seemed when I first heard the news that such a strange place did not deserve the King of Pop, who, in my mind and presumably the minds of his fans, belonged in the grandiose and unique Neverland where Jackson could escape the prying eyes of the world. It was an uninteresting branch of the McDonald’s of mortuaries; a sacrilege comparable to hanging a Van Gogh in a motel restroom.

Forest Lawn, after all, is a model of efficiency. The first facility to combine cemetery, mortuary, religious and floral services, Forest Lawn averages 21 services a day and 27 internments according to the memorial parks’ history book, Forest Lawn: The First 100 Years.

After some research and another visit to the memorial park, the grounds may not be such a plain resting ground after all.

Upon entering the facility through the wrought-iron entrance gates that are literally the largest ones in the world, visitors drive up to a booth where a staff member hands them a map of the grounds. It’s a little like an amusement park; the map is meticulously labeled, the surroundings impossibly manicured. This is no haunted, gloomy cemetery, but 290 acres of headstoneless greenery, lily-ponds, fountains, chapels, halls, a museum and an alarming amount of copycat art.

Yes, there’s even a looming, exact replica of Michelangelo’s “David” guarding the graves, which, despite having suffered twice from the region’s earthquakes, has been replaced and refurbished.

This was, after all, Forest Lawn founder Hubert Eaton’s manifestation of a cemetery not as a place that looked at death as a passage into darkness, but as a way to remember — a place for families. And in a way, Forest Lawn is that. Many Sundays, the roads are filled with SUVs and minivans with visitors in tow, ready to visit with Uncle Bob and have a picnic. The stroll through gardens of statues and murals are only part of the experience.

Some may think that this is blasphemy but, like Disneyland and other spectacles, the experience of the memorial park was truly pioneered in Southern California and accepted into the culture. After all, for show biz, death can often mean the ultimate last shot of good publicity.

That’s not to say that celebrities immediately disappear post-funeral. Los Angeles also pays tribute to the famous dead with events such as Cinespia, where wine-loving, plaid-clad hipsters can stuff their faces while watching movies on the lawn of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Stars buried on site are actors, directors and other talent associated with each film, which can be barely heard or seen beyond the rips of bongs and public displays of affection, which grow soggier with dew as the summer night progresses. It’s probably not the best way to respect the Los Angeles dead, but it’s an insight into death culture here.

When death does come, Angelenos are all the same. We all have to rest somewhere, and for some celebrities, that means a quiet burial in an upstate rancho; for others, a grand affair at a vulgar yet ornate palm tree-lined cemetery like Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But for Jackson, it means a spot that has been in the county for more than 100 years, a place of rest for paupers and princes alike — a place familiar to the collective consciousness of a local culture that at once reviled and revered him, isolating him with headlines and hounding paparazzi.

On the day of what would be his 51st birthday, he is just like everyone else, part of the greenery on the hill. Perhaps that was just what he wanted.

Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Lost & Found,” runs Thursdays.