Most people seem to think of cemeteries as macabre, as places of death, row after row of gravestones of people long since departed. And for most, the only reason to ever visit one is a funeral or the anniversary of the death of a loved one. However, for travelers, old cemeteries can be a treasure, places of beauty and of history.
A brief note when it comes to exploring a cemetery. It is, first and foremost, a cemetery. Many old cemeteries are still active, and you may come across a funereal procession or a grieving loved one. Be respectful of these things. Allow the procession to pass. Don’t enter an area where a gravesite funeral is taking place. Don’t step on headstones of people’s loved ones. Don’t take photos if they are not permitted in an area. Basically, just be kind and sensitive to the function of the place, and the feelings of those visiting for purposes other than exploration.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s discuss cemeteries, and why they can be truly wonderful tourist destinations. First of all, they can be incredibly beautiful. In some urban environments, these are little sections of green, functioning almost as city parks in addition to their more morbid tasks. Secondly, some feature outstanding architecture, both in the mausoleums and in some individual crypts. Some even have public art installations designed to beautify the spaces, from basic stained glass work to statues and mosaics. Finally, old cemeteries are a glimpse into history. There are countless lives presented to visitors, and in many of the cemeteries, one can find the gravesites of famous people. It can be a pleasure to stumble across a marker for a historic icon or personal hero.
I have made visiting old cemeteries part of my travels, but had never really taken the time to explore a local iconic cemetery until recently, when a friend suggested that we take a walk/hike through the hilly Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. This was my first visit, and this place checks all of the boxes.
One of the chapels at Forest Lawn
Let’s begin with the physical beauty of the place. Hills covered with well-manicured lawns sprawl over an area that is deceivingly larger than it appears from the outside. With each curve, another approaches, drawing you into a world that is much more peaceful than the bustle of Los Angeles outside the gates. The freeways visible from the top of Forest Lawn seem part of another universe, far removed from the quiet of the cemetery.
Forest Lawn is peaceful and beautiful. Here a replica of Michelangelo’s David can be seen in an alcove
The architecture and art of Forest Lawn are among the most impressive of any cemetery I’ve seen. From castle-like mausoleums to the Americana-themed art of some of the enclaves, each corner begs for exploration. While the individual crypts and monuments aren’t as impressive (an obvious exception is Elizabeth Taylor’s monument in a no-photography section and therefore not pictured), the buildings are stunning. There are even replicas of many of Michelangelo’s most famous works; the David can be seen off of upper Cathedral Drive and the Pieta stands in the central crypt of one of the mausoleums down the hall from the Elizabeth Taylor monument.
The Court of Liberty features scenes from American history.
While historically Forest Lawn only dates to 1906, being one of the most beautiful sites in Los Angeles has attracted a noteworthy share of celebrity burials. Many of them are in areas not open to the public. For instance, this is the final resting place for Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Jackson, and Walt Disney, just to name a few. The aforementioned Elizabeth Taylor’s grave and monument can be seen, and the same mausoleum also holds the remains of – and a tribute to – world renowned scientist Robert Millikan. An unexpected surprise was the plain marker for another Hollywood superstar, Jimmy Stewart. His is just another headstone in a large area, though Google Maps will show the spot for you.
The headstone of Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart
A visit to Forest Lawn should take about two hours, which includes seeing most of the more iconic sections at a leisurely pace. The roads are steep if you plan to walk – I recommend walking since it adds to the peace of the place – so take your time. Cemeteries are places to stroll, not places to speed through.
This mausoleum holds monuments to Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Millikan, and more.
If you love travel, appreciate history, and enjoy peaceful places, you might want to consider visiting an old cemetery. If you are in Los Angeles, Forest Lawn might be a destination you’ll love as much as I did.
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