The American Way of Death
One of the unforeseen benefits of the visit to Warner Bros studio was that it turned out to be just next door to Forest Lawn Memorial Park (i.e. cemetery) at Glendale. Right next door, in American terms that is. It was about a ten minute drive away – or in our case a 45 minute drive because the Sat Nav took us first to the wrong Forest Lawn (we hadn’t realised that there was more than one).
After all I’d read about this vast necropolis – from Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford to Umberto Eco – I was prepared to be very scathing about the whole enterprise. In fact, I was rather impressed, at least in part.
Sure, there is a really naff side to it. The burial ground for the babies (presided over by a bronze toddler in a nappy) is enough to make anyone sick – apart, presumably, from the bereaved parents. The helium balloons attached as Easter decorations to even the adult memorials struck an odd note (as well as apparently breaking the fiercely displayed rules about no artificial decorations on the graves). And the advert for “advance planning” that you get given on the way in feels a bit creepy. But that’s I suppose how they make their money.
On the other hand, the art works that I had assumed I would find merely vulgar were actually worth the trip. The brains behind Forest Lawn, Hubert Eaton, was committed to the view that the dead should be surrounded by masterpieces – preferably big ones.
The first we called on was Leonardo’s Last Supper rendered in stained glass, by the last of a long line of Italian stained glass artists, Rosa Moretti in the 1920s. This is unveiled throughout the day, on the hour and the half. And despite what you’d think, it’s absolutely wonderful. (The same could not be said, however, for the commentary which goes with it, explaining inter alia that God was not keen on having Judas turned into glass – his figure broke five times in the furnace, but sixth time lucky!)
Even better though was the painting billed as the biggest painting in the world, unveiled only on the hour (you have to plan carefully if you don’t want to be here all day). This is an enormous crucifixion (195 foot by 45) by the Polish artist Jan Styka, which came to the USA for the St Louis world fair – but was never put on show and ended up impounded by customs and excise, until Eaton rescued it in the 1940s and brought it to Los Angeles.
Again, the commentary is ghastly, and you can’t get very close to the painting. In fact, you have to sit in a look-alike cinema while the masterpiece is unveiled before you. But I thought it was well worth it – until the almost as big, and truly ghastly, Resurrection appeared, commissioned by Eaton in the 1960s to complete his Christian trilogy. That sent us hurrying back outside to the graveyard and the balloons.