This article is part of The Legacy Project: explorations into creating legacy projects for end of life, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship Award.
Hollywood is a place where people come to be immortalised, mainly through film and television - and some through plastic surgery. A strange feeling pervades in this sprawling city when I think of the myriad of famous people who live high in the hills above most of the other residents. My LA born cab driver commented that to him it feels as though royalty are looking down on their subjects. In a city where fame is literally so high up on the agenda, it was intriguing to find out how their dead are memorialised.
I spent a day walking in a city where light and darkness are present in equal measure. Los Angeles has many different sides to it, and although the sun may shine most of the time, there is a certain macabre edge and sense of darkness which bubbles underneath the shiny surface. This darkness has been explored in many films, songs and books, though like the city itself, you are never sure if what you are seeing is artifice made real or a true reflection. I often think of the film Mulholland Drive by David Lynch as a perfect example of the sheer oddness of a certain version of Los Angeles - but does this version really exist? It is a city that makes you want to be transported back to eras and moments in time that live on in the collective consciousness of popular culture.
The light came in the form of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery which houses such names as Rudolph Valentino, Johnny Ramone, Jayne Mansfield, Cecil B DeMille and Toto the dog from The Wizard of Oz. I happened to visit on Mother’s Day, so was privy to families arriving in droves to visit the graves of their family members. It is a beautiful, calm place which speaks to the human need for a place to rest loved ones in peace. The Cemetery itself boarders onto Paramount studios lot, and “is a testament to the important role the park’s presence has played on the evolution of Hollywood’s legacy” according to the official walking directory of Hollywood Forever. It was quite something to spend time amongst the graves of some of the most notable names from the golden era of Hollywood, and with a view of the Hollywood sign up in the hills the grandiose memorials felt very at home.
Click on the images to enlarge.
The darkness visited in the form of The Museum of Death in Hollywood. This is somewhere you should not visit if you are of a weak disposition. As someone who works with death daily and who reads true crime books even I left feeling unsettled. The idea behind the museum is to ‘make people glad to be alive’ - I'm not so sure this was the ultimate feeling that I left with after spending time wandering rooms and corridors which memorialise serial killer’s letters, drawings and photographs of mutilated bodies. The intention to shock is very deliberate, and the owners have spoken of the desire to bring death to the forefront of society, though I am convinced there is also the thrill of subversion at play too. There is undoubtedly a human fascination in violent death and the psychological make-up of people who kill for pleasure, or cult leaders who induce mass suicide (the museum owns clothing and bunk-beds from the Heaven’s Gate Cult suicide where 39 people died together) and I am certainly not immune to this fascination. There is, however, a queasy star-struck element to the fact that the owners themselves have corresponded with Charles Manson so much that they now have a room ‘devoted’ to him.
The museum also houses an impressive collection of memento mori, skulls, shrunken heads and an instructional video on embalming amongst the many other rooms of sheer brutality. There is a particularly disturbing set of photographs which were never intended for public viewing, depicting a naked couple grinning and posing as they dismember the corpse of a man they have just killed for fun. The couple took the film to be processed by a friend who worked in a lab, however the negatives fell into the hands of another employee who promptly altered the authorities.
The visceral feeling that hit me when I studied pictures of the murder scene of pregnant Sharon Tate in the Tate/LaBianca murders by Charles Manson's Family ( a prime example of LA darkness) lingered long after I had left. In the ‘Theatre Room’ a video plays on repeat showing people dying in public as transfixed visitors watch over and over the moment life is extinguished. I spoke to the museum guide who told me that people often faint in the museum due to the shockingly graphic nature of the pictures and objects housed within the museum. He quite gleefully told me that death is not always beautiful and is something we should all be able to face, in all of its forms - however violent and unexpected this may be. As I exited he called out “long live death!”, and I was left wondering just how enlightened he, or anyone not imminently dying, really is about their own death, no matter how many times you've watched the film.
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