'Till Death Do Us Part : A Wedding at a Cemetery Might Seem Macabre, but Forest Lawn's 2 Chapels Are Booked 6 Months Ahead

Times Staff Writer

Joanne Corker's four-month quest for the perfect wedding spot took her from a glass chapel on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to an old mansion set among orange groves in Loma Linda.

It ended in June when she and her fiance were married in a hilltop chapel at one of Southern California's largest cemeteries, where about 300,000 people are buried.

Since 1929, more than 35,000 couples have exchanged vows at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Shaded by oaks and pines and landscaped with life-sized sculptures, fountains and fragrant flowers, the lush green grounds offer a beautiful, if incongruous, setting for a marriage ceremony.

Graves Are Reminder

Despite the credo of founder Hubert Eaton--that Forest Lawn should be a spiritual haven for the living--the neat rows of memorial tablets marking the graves are a constant reminder that it is primarily a place for the dead.

And, in the mind of Richard Cunningham, executive vice president for Pierce Brothers, Cunningham and O'Connor Mortuaries of Los Angeles, a place for the dead is no place to recite wedding vows. "I've been in this business 40 years and if I were going to get married, I damn sure wouldn't want to do it in a cemetery."

While such sentiments are common, Forest Lawn's setting often wins them over. "A place of endings and a place for beginnings," said Sue Moungey, who was married at Forest Lawn last Sunday.

The cemetery's two churches that hold weddings--Wee Kirk o' the Heather and the Church of the Recessional--are so popular that on weekends, they are generally booked six months in advance.

Numerous Weddings

Twenty-six weddings were held in June and July alone, about half at Wee Kirk, a replica of a small 14th-Century Scottish church.

Over the years, the quaint chapel has drawn the rich and famous. Perhaps the best-known couple to wed there were Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, married Jan. 26, 1940.

"In the '40s, if a couple wasn't married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren't married," Forest Lawn's wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, declared proudly. "It was the elite place to be married."

During her search for the perfect place to get married, Corker, 32, visited two dozen restaurants, historic houses, inns and gardens. None seemed quite right. Then a parent at the La Crescenta school where she teaches fourth grade suggested that she look at Forest Lawn.

"I had a very negative reaction," Corker recalled. "But my husband was always saying we must explore all the options."

So she agreed to have a peek.

"We were driving through the gates, and I'm sitting in the car with my arms folded, saying 'I don't want to get married in a cemetery,' " Corker said. "Then we went 'round the bend and saw the Wee Kirk. I let out a gasp. I was just dumbfounded. I said, 'Oh Rodney, this is absolutely gorgeous. This is the one.' I must admit I was out of the car before he was."

The tiny church, flanked by a garden of blooming flowers and grass smooth as velvet, had everything, Corker said. "It was romantic and secluded. It had stone walls, that Old World air. It was very, very quiet. It was just what we were looking for."

The 60-year-old church is a reproduction of the Wee Kirk o' the Heather near Glencairn, Scotland, where a young woman named Annie Laurie, celebrated in a poem by Robert Burns, once worshiped. Eight stained glass windows along the south side of the chapel tell the bittersweet story of Annie's love for Douglas of Fingland, a rival clansman whom her father forbade her to marry.

Stars Buried There

Forest Lawn also holds weddings at its parks in Hollywood Hills, Burbank, Cypress and Covina. But the Glendale site--where such celebrities as Mary Pickford, W. C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy are buried--is the most popular, Broking said.

Many old churches have burial grounds on their property. But Forest Lawn appears to be the only large cemetery in Los Angeles County where weddings are held routinely. Others used to permit them, but have suspended the practice over the years.

"It just wasn't appropriate to celebrate a very happy time in people's lives when there are people here mourning the loss of loved ones," said Dessie Maze, a spokeswoman for Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. "We just felt that the two did not go hand in hand."

Although Forest Lawn never schedules funerals at the same time as weddings, those attending weddings occasionally drive past mourners tidying grave sites or placing flower bouquets.

Wedding guests enter through stately, wrought-iron gates, passing a sign that says: "Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Undertaking, Cemetery, Crematory, Mausoleum, Flower Shop. One call makes all arrangements." There is no mention of weddings.

View of Hills

The winding road up to the churches offers a view of the park's rolling hills. Equally visible are the thousands of gravestones that cover them.

"People say, 'You're getting married in a cemetery?' " said Moungey, a 27-year-old graphic design student whose parents and grandparents were also married at Forest Lawn. "But it's not like that. There are no graves next to the church. It's a beautiful, scenic spot, high up on the hill."

She said members of her wedding party were skeptical. "Then we had the rehearsal and they said, 'You're right, this place is gorgeous, just like in a storybook.' "

Broking has a simple retort for cynics. "Every church has funerals and every church has weddings," she said.

As Forest Lawn's wedding coordinator, a position she's held for 10 years, Broking manages a staff of four. She said she wants everything to be perfect for the succession of brides she affectionately refers to as "my girls."

Weddings, which cost about $165 but will soon increase in price, include singing canaries and a shower of rose petals that drift down from a bell above the altar as the bride and groom exchange their first kiss as husband and wife. Organ music and flowers are extra. Forest Lawn does not provide an official to marry the couple.

'Place for Living'

Acquired in 1917 by Eaton, a cemetery executive, Forest Lawn was not intended to be a place of sorrow, Broking said. "He wanted it to be a place for the living, where people could come and enjoy life. That is why there is so much artwork, why there is so much to see and do here. But there are people who will never, never accept that."

The park's grounds include a museum--featuring bronze statues and an ancient coin collection--a mausoleum, a fountain and a pool filled with ducks and swans. Camera-toting tourists take it all in.

The two churches include bride's quarters carpeted in a soothing shade of green as well as private grieving rooms that are hidden behind draperies during weddings. "I make a wedding a wedding and a funeral a funeral," Broking said. "I never want to mix the two events. It would spoil it for some people."

There is one concession that Forest Lawn expects wedding entourages to make to their surroundings. A sign placed outside the churches informs wedding guests that tossing rice and confetti at the newlyweds is prohibited. Also unwelcome are blaring car horns and cans fastened to the bumpers of automobiles.

Laurie Lawton, who was married at Wee Kirk in January, said she wouldn't hesitate to recommend Forest Lawn to future brides.

"The one thing we hesitated on was, of course, the fact that it was a cemetery," she said. "But once you're in the church, you're in your own little area. You forget where you are."

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