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Forest Lawn’s untold stories revealed in new book

Hubert Eaton, one of the early architects of Forest Lawn Glendale, tailored the 112-year-old cemetery’s history to depict himself as the instant savior of a financially-failing business, according to his grandnephew.

“The reality is not nearly that clean,” said John Llewellyn of his great-uncle.

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It took 10 years of poring over correspondences, board meeting minutes and old newspaper clippings, but Llewellyn, former chief executive and president of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, has written a book that he said describes accurately for the first time the cemetery’s chaotic early years.

“Birth of a Cemetery,” now available on Amazon, tells of Eaton’s more than 10-year struggle to develop a viable financial model, which is far from the over-simplified truth he told before his death in 1966, Llewellyn said.

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The book begins in 1905, seven years before Eaton arrived on a sales contract in 1912 and one year before the nondenominational cemetery, which stretches across Glendale and Los Angeles, opened.

In Llewellyn’s telling, there’s a cast of kooky, shady characters who loom over the cemetery’s beginnings: the man who sold the land to the first cemetery developers was an alleged crook, the superintendent was reportedly a drunk and his great-uncle was a bit of an egotist.

Around 1915, a monument dealer shot a man who owned land across from the cemetery because the man didn’t want the dealer to move in next to him, Llewellyn said.

The second president of the cemetery, Norton Wells, initially conspired to keep the boundaries of the cemetery outside of Glendale and entirely in Los Angeles while it was annexing the former city of Tropico.

Wells thought he would have more influence over the business by remaining outside of Glendale’s political sphere, despite the city’s present-day positive relationship with the cemetery, Llewellyn said.

“These are the the untold stories — and are fun because of that,” said Llewellyn, whose father was also previously chief executive and president of the cemetery.

Personality quirks notwithstanding, Llewellyn credits Eaton with developing the novel concept of a memorial park — so the cemetery is as much for the people above ground as it is for those below.

Eaton, a devout Baptist, was reacting to then-contemporary cemeteries when he sat on a hill on New Year’s Day in 1917, and reportedly said, “They were wrong because they depict an end and not a beginning,” Llewellyn said.

“One of the things he said was it should be a place where lovers new and old should be able to reminisce of the past or plan for the future,” Llewellyn added.

It’s that vision that guides the cemetery’s current programming, which extends beyond traditional events like Memorial Day and Easter Sunday observances.

The cemetery houses an ample collection of well-regarded American bronze statuary and reproductions of all of Michelangelo’s major works, but the on-premises museum routinely hosts works not typically associated with a cemetery.

For example, the current exhibit spotlights soccer and the recent World Cup, Llewellyn said.

Last weekend, three of the cemetery’s locations held Dia de los Muertos ceremonies with music, art and vendors. On Friday, there will be one more celebration.

“Forest Lawn has really tried to adapt to the community, to be part of it,” Llewellyn said.

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