Forest Lawn at 100: The Rest Is History
She figured they’d made a wrong turn on their way to the wedding.
“This is a cemetery,” Andrea Mills told her husband.
That’s when Garrett Mills explained that friends Brad Hubisz and Catherine Moore were getting married at Forest Lawn.
What better place to pledge love for each other “ ‘till death do us part,” as Hubisz and Moore did during their ceremony at the Glendale memorial park’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heather before a gathering of friends and family.
The tiny stone chapel is modeled after a 14th century Scottish church. It is one of the unusual features that over the last 100 years has helped turn Forest Lawn into a world-famous tourist attraction.
“At first I thought it was odd to have a wedding in a cemetery,” said Garrett Mills, of Pasadena. “I was a little skeptical. But they described how gorgeous the chapel was. And it really is.”
Down the grassy hill from the chapel, John Llewellyn, sitting on the second floor of the Tudor-style building that is Forest Lawn’s combination headquarters, mortuary and flower shop, grinned at that reaction.
“In my family there doesn’t seem anything odd at all about getting married here,” Llewellyn laughed. His parents were, he said, and so was he. And his daughter is scheduled to be this fall.
Llewellyn, 58, is the great-nephew of Forest Lawn’s founder. As its current chief executive officer, he’s also in charge of a yearlong celebration marking its centennial.
Over the last century, Forest Lawn has been mocked by novelist Evelyn Waugh and blamed as the cause of soaring burial costs. It also became an unlikely magnet for tourists who see the feel-good cemetery as a distinctly California invention.
So the 290-acre burial ground that straddles the Glendale-Los Angeles boundary line has plenty to commemorate.
It may have been the first cemetery in the United States to ban above-ground, monument-style tombstones and instead require ground-level markers (better views, less cemetery-like).
It was the first to incorporate distinctive architectural motifs, creating faux European castles and cathedrals that critics have likened to a Disneyland of death. The designs were meant to entice visitors to linger in a park-like setting.
As it marks its 100th birthday, Forest Lawn isn’t the tourist draw it was in its heyday -- and some of its more flamboyant flourishes, such as talking statues, have been toned down.
But as those at the Hubisz-Mills wedding can attest, there’s nothing else quite like it.
Hubert Eaton called himself “The Builder” after he became Forest Lawn’s general manager in 1917. Created in 1906, the cemetery was a dusty patch dotted with dried scrub and scattered headstones and obelisks.
Eaton had sold burial plots there for several years and viewed the place as dismal and uninviting. So he developed a plan to transform the cemetery, a vision he called “The Builder’s Creed,” which would eventually be chiseled in stone outside a grand art-filled structure called the “Great Mausoleum.”
The “cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, not a beginning. They have consequently become unsightly stone yards,” Eaton wrote. “I shall try to build at Forest Lawn a great park, devoid of misshapen monuments and other customary signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers....”
Eaton scoured Europe for artworks he could either purchase or replicate for his new memorial park.
Deeply religious, he commissioned an Italian-made stained-glass replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” It was installed in a mausoleum equipped with mechanical shutters that dimmed and brightened the imagery on command.
Eaton turned to Britain for inspiration for nonsectarian funeral chapels he could build on the Glendale grounds.
The first, a replica of a 600-year-old church in Stoke Poges, England, was erected in 1921. But even Eaton was stunned when a Los Angeles couple, Cora Gregory Wells and Archie Milton Howes, asked two years later to be married in the Little Church of the Flowers.
The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather was built in 1929 as a copy of Annie Laurie’s church at Glencairn in Scotland. A decade later, Eaton built the Church of the Recessional, a reproduction of the Parish Church of St. Margaret in Rottingdean, England.
To house his rapidly growing collection of original and reproduction sculpture, Eaton built an art gallery.
The “Holly Terrace” was filled with the works of prominent American sculptors and bronzes of such figures as George Washington, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
He added a museum to display more of Forest Lawn’s increasingly eclectic art collection: the “world’s largest black opal,” a brooding Easter Island stone head, bronze Remington cowboys and replicas of virtually every statue ever done by Michelangelo.
Eaton built the 1,000-seat Hall of the Crucifixion -- with room for at least twice that many -- to display “the world’s largest religious painting.”
“It’s all so beautiful,” marveled visitor Pasquele Bruno as he stepped from the auditorium with two of wife Maria Bruno’s cousins in tow. The relatives were visiting from Venice, Italy, and they remarked in Italian at how clean and orderly Forest Lawn is.
“I’ve been coming here regularly for 43 years,” said Bruno, a Glendale furniture manufacturer. He translated for his visitors: “They are saying, ‘There’s nothing like this in Italy.’ I bring every guest we have here. I want to show them how beautiful this is.”
Maria Bruno nodded enthusiastically. “I never get tired of it. We’re going over to see ‘The Last Supper’ next,” she said.
At the mausoleum where the stained-glass window is on display, a Forest Lawn employee reminded them that cellphones had to be turned off before the lights dimmed, the curtain opened and recorded narration began explaining the window’s history. Only one other person was in the room for the 4 p.m. showing.
It wasn’t always this way.
In its heyday in the 1950s, Forest Lawn was a genuine tourist attraction.
It was Southern California’s top visitor draw until 1957, when the recently opened Disneyland surpassed it.
“They were true pioneers,” said John Resick, president of the Cemetery and Mortuary Assn. of California. “You look around the United States and you see their influence.”
But though Forest Lawn spawned many imitators in the funeral business, it also sparked much criticism.
Waugh, the British novelist, wrote the biting 1948 satire “The Loved One,” drawing on Forest Lawn’s ambience and Eaton’s marketing strategy of selling “pre-need” burial plots for his own plot line.
Muckraking author Jessica Mitford blamed Eaton for probably having “more influence on trends in the modern cemetery industry than any other human being.”
Eaton stirred controversy in 1964 when he allegedly made segregationist remarks during a speech at the Forest Lawn Foundation’s annual college writing awards dinner.
Two years later, there was a flap over Eaton’s penchant for placing signs in the cemetery that criticized “big government,” communism, Supreme Court decisions and taxes. He died in 1966 at age 85.
These days, Forest Lawn seems to have mellowed. Eaton’s fanciful names for areas of the cemetery -- such as Slumberland, Lullaby Land and Vesperland -- have so frequently been copied by other cemeteries that they no longer raise eyebrows.
And, compared with Eaton’s extravagance, the 100th anniversary celebration seems downright restrained.
“At one time there was music piped to some parts of the park, and at key statues there were lectures about the artwork,” said Llewellyn, who joined the family business in 1972. “But it was hard to maintain as the equipment got older.”
Forest Lawn is low-key about some things. For privacy reasons, employees decline to identify the locations of celebrities’ graves. Officials won’t reveal the number of people who are buried at the park (one estimate is about 350,000) because they want funerals to feel personal and not mass-produced.
Officials are more forthcoming about Forest Lawn weddings, however. They say an estimated 70,000 couples have been married there since Wells and Howes started it all in 1923.
Weddings are conducted late in the day, when no funerals are scheduled.
The music of Beethoven and Handel filled the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel for the Moore-Hubisz nuptials.
The Glendale couple chose the location because it reminded them of the East Coast and of Scotland, where Moore studied.
“We talked about the location beforehand,” said the couple’s pastor, the Rev. Randy Lovejoy of Silver Lake Community Church.
“This is my first wedding here. I prefer it to a funeral.”