Don’t worry, we’re not passing judgement on the “best” cemeteries in which to spend eternity—we just want to share with you our favorite cemeteries for strolling, exploring, pondering and exploring history… in this life.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park
The first in this swank chain of memorial parks (these guys thought up the term “memorial park,” because “cemetery” sounded so gloomy), Forest Lawn gives the deceased an upbeat, sun- and light-filled final resting place. So until Angelenos find a Botox-injected cure for death, we can pay our respects in these wide-open spaces – no depressing monuments here! Because it’s relatively close to the Hollywood sign, many elements of this 300-acre park are over the top. The wrought-iron gates in front are said to be the world’s largest. More than one million visitors pass through them each year, including thousands of schoolchildren on field trips (whaaat?). Some come to visit the 250,000 people interred here, but many come just for the artwork. That’s right, hoo boy, the “artwork”: a stained-glass “Last Supper,” replicas of Michelangelo statuary, a jumbo “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” in 700,000 mosaic tiles, a giant moai carving from Easter Island, an oversize bronze of George Washington that Congress forgot to pay for, so Forest Lawn bought it. It’s all big, bigger than life. Oh, now we get it: This is a place to get what you didn’t have the first time around. The expanses of lawn are amazing, and the living will earn your next meal walking from Great Mausoleum through the Labyrinth to the English reproduction chapels. You won’t get a lot of help from the management in locating your favorite luminaries, armies of whom rest here. Just as you couldn’t sit at their table at Chasen’s when they were alive. Oh well. This is a cemetery, after all, where reverence and decorum count. Even in Los Angeles.
1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 800.204.3131, forestlawn.com. Open daily 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (to 6 p.m. in daylight savings time).
Mission San Gabriel Cemetery
On the north side of the mission, you can’t miss the large wrought-iron cemetery gates framed by tiles painted with welcoming skulls. Aside from tombstones and a few elevated monuments, this large, flat, walled block of land isn’t very inviting; benches for reflecting are as few as shade trees. The prettier burial grounds are inside the mission’s walls ($5 charge). Woven through the courtyards and shaded patios are the final resting places of modern-day priests who served the mission, as well as older graves marked by antique wrought-iron gates framed by giant grapevine trunks. A big marble bench connotes the grave of mission manager Eulalia Perez, the first individual to receive an Alta California land grant from Spain (although she was beset by swindlers and lost nearly all of it). It’s definitely worth the $5 to see the mission at final rest. A small sign reports that 6,000 Gabrielinos are buried here, too, which seems yet another insult to the people who were subsumed – and all but forgotten – by California’s mission system.
427 S. Junipero Serra Dr., San Gabriel, 626.457.3035, sangabrielmission.org.
Mountain View Cemetery
Mountain View was created to serve Pasadena as well as the Pasadena Highlands, later known as Altadena. Although located in Altadena, it is Pasadena’s major cemetery, outside of some church sites. This stretch of North Fair Oaks is still fairly quiet and isolated, which makes a visit here all the more pleasant, and it’s a manageable size, whether you want to take a fifteen-minute look or a three-hour stroll. Approximately 60 acres, with well-spaced trees, Victorian monuments, small headstones, roundabouts and curbs tall enough to comfortably step out of your horse-drawn carriage, Mountain View is home to a couple of cool Civil War sections, as well as the graves of many prominent African-American citizens from the last 160 years, including Thomas Ellsworth, who earned a Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War; A.J. Bertonneaux, the Creole business leader who brought football to the Rose Parade celebrations; and Eldridge Cleaver, a founding member of the Black Panther Party. You’ll also find such literary pioneers as John Ransom, who wrote the bleak Civil War book Andersonville Diary; Earl Derr Biggers, the mystery novelist who created detective Charlie Chan; MacArthur Genius Octavia Butler; and a bunch of regular old geniuses (Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize winner; Thaddeus Lowe, inventor and railway pioneer; George Reeves, TV’s Superman; and Wilbur Hatch, conductor of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra). Hologram biographies of the residents are available on a limited basis. Halloween weekend tours are offered infrequently through local historical societies, and they’re well worth attending.
2400 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena, 626.794.7133. Open daily; closes at dusk.
San Gabriel Cemetery
This historic cemetery shares a common driveway with the Church of Our Saviour, home to a life-size bronze statue of Gen. George S. Patton in the church courtyard and a stained-glass window inside the church of a tank (yes, this was Patton’s family’s church). Take a left at the caretaker’s cottage, past the lollipop- sculpted lemon trees, and either walk or drive through the fourteen-acre cemetery. This is one of the coolest cemeteries in the SG Valley, and it’s also the ritziest. The celebrities come from California’s history pages: Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, the Pattons, the potato-chip Scudder family and so forth. The grounds are serene and immaculate, and the tombstones tell lively tales of folks who embraced their work, struggles and families.
601 W. Rose Rd., San Gabriel, 626.282.2764, sangabrielcemetery.com. Open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetery
In 1881 the land for this cemetery was purchased, and the first customer arrived in 1884, a Civil War vet who had recently moved to town. This is a lovely, shady, raised burial park with fortified walls and a wrought-iron railing. It also has a new memorial “shed” with touch- screen information on the residents. The curving paths connect the cemetery’s 2.5 acres with Sierra Madre’s community park, creating a nice flow from this world to the next and back again.
553 Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre