Forest Lawn, The Disneyland of Death

by M-Gillies

Nat “King” Cole, George Burns, Clara Bow are all interred in Forest Lawn’s Sanctuary of Heritage.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale California is the home to many of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars; from Clark Gable to Jimmy Stewart; Humphrey Bogart to Errol Flynn; Jean Harlow to Mary Pickford. It’s also the home to an art gallery, museum, architectural showcase, and has been dubbed a Hollywood tourist trap as well as a religious retreat − one in which even Pope John Paul II had visited during a stop in Los Angeles. While Forest Lawn attracts over a million visitors per year, its history is almost as colorful as the site itself.

It was in the early 1900s when Hubert Eaton came to California from St. Louis. Eaton, who had been dubbed in a Reader’s Digest as being “… a successful metallurgist and chemist” who at the age of thirty moved to California with hopes of retirement, was also said to have made his way west after having made and lost a million dollars in a Nevada silver mine − a tale mentioned in Adela Rogers St. Johns biography, First Step Up Toward Heaven: Hubert Eaton and Forest Lawn (1959). However the history of Eaton’s journey to California began when the man stumbled upon the cemetery almost in happenstance.

It was while surveying the graveyard growth of chaparral and devil grass in 1917, that Eaton saw instead “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, noble memorial architecture with interiors full of light and color.”

First built in 1906 in what was known as Tropico, Forest Lawn Cemetery was ten acres of developed property, with another forty-five undeveloped acres of dusty patches dotted with dried scrubs, no buildings or improvements, with the exception of a grove of olive trees and a few scatterings of headstones and obelisks.

But for Eaton, it was something else entirely. In 1912, Eaton and a colleague, Charles Sims formed American Securities Corporation and signed a contract with the cemetery to sell property before need. While the idea of paying for a funeral before it was needed was something that had been done for nearly 2,000 years prior, many funeral directors saw it as a kind of death insurance they didn’t want to sponsor. However, Eaton saw it as beneficial. However, when he and Sims had a falling out, Eaton went on to form American Security & Fidelity Corporation (AS&F) in 1916.

By 1917, Eaton vowed to remake the dreary, under-utilized graveyard, and after becoming general manager, took on the name The Builder as he introduced a number of radical innovations, purging any trace of gloom, banning traditional upright tombstones, and further restricting deciduous trees as the loss of their leaves “reminded visitors of death”.

It wasn’t long before Eaton revolutionized cemeteries when he changed the name of Forest Lawn Cemetery to Forest Lawn Memorial Park. It was the first time a cemetery had been associated with a park-like ambience, and while certain activities such as picnicking and bike riding were forbidden, the public was actively encouraged to treat the park as a recreation area. In fact, Eaton firmly believed in a joyous life after death, and while he was convinced that most cemeteries were unsightly, depressing stone yards, he maintained his pledge of creating a landscape that would reflect his optimistic beliefs by naming burial sections with fanciful and sugary names: Eventide, Babyland, Sweet Memories, Vesperland, Kindly Light, Sunrise Slope, Dawn of Tomorrow, Inspiration Slope, and Graceland.

“Cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, not a beginning,” Eaton wrote.

Big, beautiful and inspiring was his mantra, and big, beautiful and inspiring was what he strived to achieve. Under Eaton’s leadership, Forest Lawn soon had a metamorphosis, beginning with his first purchase of Edith Parson’s Duck Baby statue. Prior to his purchasing, he had announced his recommendation to the board of directors, who had objected, saying “art didn’t belong in a cemetery and that it cost too much.” But Eaton, rescinded the proposal before the matter could be voted upon, adjourned the meeting, and a week later purchased the statue on his own authority as general manager, paying $800.

By the 1920s, Eaton had turned to Britain for inspiration. Having began taking biennial trips to Europe, it was his intention to study at close range art and architecture which had been world renowned as beautiful in hopes of bringing back nonsectarian art to Forest Lawn.

Eaton commissioned artists to reproduce many of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures including this replica of Michelangelo’s David.

In his quest, Eaton commissioned the purchase and more often than not, the reconstruction of many famous pieces of art. In 1921, he had a replica of a 600-year-old church from Stoke Poges, England built on the grounds, followed by a copy of Glencairn, Scotland’s Annie Laurie’s Church, which was dubbed The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather in 1929. A decade later, a reproduction of the Parish Church of St. Margaret from Rottingdean, England was built on the property and named the Church of the Recessional.

With deep religious roots, Eaton soon went on to commission an Italian-made stained glass replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to be installed in a mausoleum, equipped with mechanical shutters that dimmed and brightened the imagery on command, and were further surrounded by a collection of Michelangelo replicated statues.

As his rapidly growing collection of both original and reproduced sculptures grew, Eaton soon had an art gallery built. Known as the Holly Terrace, it was here where works of prominent American sculptors and bronzes of such figures as George Washington, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt have been placed on permanent display. Soon, Eaton even added a museum to display more of Forest Lawn’s increasingly eclectic art, which included the world’s largest black opal, a brooding Easter Island stone head, and bronze Remington cowboys.

However, perhaps one of the most important stories of Eaton’s artistic appreciation came with the purchase of Polish artist, Jan Styka’s painting The Crucifixion.

It was back in 1894, when Styka was commissioned to paint an enormous panoramic piece known as The Crucifixion – a work of art which would stand at 45 feet in tall and have a width of 195 feet.

Upon the unveiling in 1897, The Crucifixion saw immense success and was shown in many cities in Europe. However, while on its way to America for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the painting was seized when American Partners failed to pay the customs taxes.

For nearly 40 years the painting had been considered lost until Eaton tracked it to the basement of a Chicago Civic Opera Company. However, when he discovered the painting, it was found in a state of disrepair. But Eaton recovered the painting and using Styka’s son Adam, paid for the restoration of the work. He further spent over a million of his own dollars in creating a permanent home which would become known as The Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection to house the work.

With a passion for the arts and a desire to share it with others, Eaton soon held a national contest in the 50′s, seeking out an artist to complete his vision of what would be known as The Sacred Trilogy - a series of paintings depicting the three most significant events in the life of Jesus Christ; The Last Supper, The Crucifixion and The Resurrection. In 1965, American artist Robert Clark completed the companion piece The Resurrection.

Forest Lawn became an immediate success, capitalizing on attracting thousands of paying customers, luring millions of weekend visitors, and even becoming a favorite site for weddings, making it a genuine tourist attraction by 1950. But for all its success, Forest Lawn, and Eaton himself soon became targets to scathing criticism.

It was shortly after WWII had ended when British novelist, Evelyn Waugh saw tremendous success with the publication of his novel Brideshead Revisited and by 1947 flew to the United States to begin discussions of a film adaption of his magnum opus. The project collapsed and was ultimately turned down, leaving Waugh frustrated and disheartened. Using his disappointments in a cathartic way, Waugh began work on his latest novel, a blistering satire, but instead of attacking the film industry, the author turned his words toward the funeral industry, after having visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park. It was in his 1948 novel The Loved One in which Waugh settled his crosshairs particularly on Forest Lawn and lampooned Eaton’s habit of commissioning pretentious reproductions of European masterworks for his cemetery.

While the book was a success, Waugh pointed out that only in American does death become a euphemism and is treated as a tourist attraction at the Disneyland of death. However, fearing a lawsuit toward his satirical work, Waugh soon employed his friend to add a codicil to his will, which instructed he be buried at Forest Lawn, though he also claimed that American morticians would refuse to service his body should he die in the US.

Up until 1957, Forest Lawn was Southern California’s top tourist draw, but it was only after the opening of Disneyland that the popularity of the memorial park began to recede.

By 1964, at the age of 83, Eaton had become more embroiled in controversy when he allegedly made segregationist remarks during a speech held at a Forest Lawn Foundation’s annual college writing awards dinner. Two years later, just before his death at the age of 85, Eaton garnered more disapproval for having placed signs along the cemetery grounds which criticized big government, communism, Supreme Court decisions and taxes.

But for all the flak Eaton was given, the man was revolutionary in his vision of changing the tides of the traditional funeral. Even then, he didn’t just focus on funerals, but also weddings − a practice unheard of for the time.  Celebrities such as Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were married at the cemetery, and more than 50,000 other weddings were performed at the churches in his cemetery by the time he died.

Meanwhile, the 300 acre property has become home to such silent film icons as Jean Harlow, Clara Bow and Buster Keaton, as well as personalities like Liberace, Walt Disney and even Michael Jackson.

With his eye for changing the way people view funerals and cemeteries, Eaton went on to write his Creation of a Modern Park Cemetery – a self-instituted guide which he dubbed The Builder’s Creed.

I Believe In A Happy Eternal Life.

I Believe Those Of Us Who Are Left Behind Should Be Glad In The Certain Belief That Those Gone Before, Who Believed In Him, Have Entered Into That Happier Life.

I Believe, Most Of All, In A Christ That Smiles And Loves You And Me.

I Therefore Know The Cemeteries Of Today Are Wrong, Because They Depict An End, Not A Beginning. They Have Consequently Become Unsightly Stone yards Full Of Inartistic Symbols And Depressing Customs; Places That Do Nothing For Humanity Save A Practical Act, And Not That Well.

I Therefore Prayerfully Resolve On This New Year’s Day, 1917, That I Shall Endeavor To Build Forest Lawn As Different, As Unlike Other Cemeteries As Sunshine Is To Darkness, As Eternal Life Is Unlike Death. 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, Noble Memorial Architecture With Interiors Full Of Light And Color, And Redolent Of The World’s Best History And Romances.

I Believe These Things Educate And Uplift A Community.

Forest Lawn Shall Become A Place Where Lovers New And Old Shall Love To Stroll And Watch The Sunset’s Glow, Planning For The Future Or Reminiscing Of The Past; A Place Where Artists Study And Sketch; Where School Teachers Bring Happy Children To See Things They Read Of In Books, Where Little Churches, Triumphant In The Knowledge That From Their Pulpits Only Words Of Love Can Be Spoken; Where Memorialization Of Loved Ones In Sculptured Marble And Pictorial Glass Shall Be Encouraged But Controlled By Acknowledged Artists; A Place Where The Sorrowing Will Be Soothed And Strengthened Because It Will Be God’s Garden. A Place That Shall Be Protected By An Immense Endowment Care Fund, The Principal Of Which Can Never Be Expended—Only The Income Therefrom Used To Care For And Perpetuate This Garden of Memory.

This Is The Builder’s Dream; This Is The Builder’s Creed.



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