Countless cemeteries in Detroit follow the model of L.A’.s “happy cemetery”


Graves on the hillside at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California.

When Clarence Sanger set out to create White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1920s, he was working from a model pioneered in California by a visionary cemetery entrepreneur named Hubert Eaton. Eaton’s creed was “the happy cemetery,” a place that celebrated life rather than death, the sweet hereafter instead of the mournful now. At Forest Lawn, Eaton’s cemetery in Glendale (the original location of what is now a six-cemetery system), he did away with weeping angels and crosses and obelisks of the 19th-century cemetery and replaced them with rolling green lawns, gravestones flush with the ground, and a serene vibe.

White Chapel was the first memorial park plan cemetery in Michigan — the cemetery claims to be the first anywhere east of California. But it caught on quickly, and the memorial park model is ubiquitous now. My grandparents are all buried in suburban memorial park-style cemeteries. That’s what I thought a cemetery was when I was a kid: row after row of flat bronze plaques, and a manmade pond, with ducks to feed.

Eaton was a Missourian who worked as a research chemist and then a salesman in the mining industry before coming to California in 1912 to sell cemetery lots. In 1917, he took over Forest Lawn, founded in 1906 as a regular-old cemetery, and turned it into one of the most famous cemeteries in the world, not least because so many famous people deigned to be buried there. But he also made significant changes to the business side of the cemetery: besides the iconic landscaping and Disney-esque fantasia of classical art — Forest Lawn has a complete collection of replicas of Michelangelo’s major works, among other spectacles — Eaton developed a one-stop-shop model for funerary services, replacing independent funeral homes and mortuaries, florists, and even prayer-card printers with convenient in-house services.


The Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn.

I’m interested in Forest Lawn because I’m interested in cemeteries everywhere, and how they reflect the history of their places. I’ve also been obsessed with public mausoleums recently, and Forest Lawn has one of the country’s all-time great mausoleums, aptly named the Great Mausoleum. Eaton was not initially a fan of the community mausoleum, but when he ultimately decided to build one, of course he went all-out. In fact, it’s where Eaton is interred, in the Memorial Court of Honor, a weird West Coast version of Westminster Abbey, where early 20th century luminaries of art, culture and science are at rest beneath a massive 30-by-15-foot stained glass recreation of the Last Supper that took seven years to make. Memorial Court honorees, their stars now somewhat dimmed, include “I Love You Truly” songwriter Carrie Jacobs-Bond, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Andrew Millikan, and Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore.

John F. Llewellyn is the chairman of the board and former CEO of Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks. He is the author of “Birth of a Cemetery,” a chronicle of Forest Lawn’s history, which is entwined with the history of Los Angeles from its earliest days. I wanted to get his take on Forest Lawn’s role in the rise of the public  mausoleum (itself a invention of salesmen-turned-cemetery directors, and resisted for years by “big monument” interests who suspected, not wrongly, that the mausoleum business would eat into their traditional tombstone sales). He agreed to talk to me back in October, around Halloween, with the thought that I might write something pegged to the cemetery season. But I had a baby back in April and am still piecing together my life as a writer of items of historical interest, so though it is March, pleading forgiveness of both Mr. Llewellyn and my readers, here is our interview, lightly edited for succinctness and clarity, and here’s more info about his book. And absolutely, for sure pay a visit to Forest Lawn on your next visit to L.A.

Post-script: These photos are from a visit I paid to Forest Lawn in December 2016, which included a stop by the grave of Clara Dyar, forgotten society lady-turned-prison abolitionist of early Detroit.  

Tell me a little about your personal connection to Forest Lawn.

Hubert was my great uncle. … My father came to work at Forest Lawn, and he followed Hubert Eaton as general manager and chief executive of Forest Lawn. I was persuaded to come and work at Forest Lawn in 1972, and then I became CEO in 1988 and stepped down in 2011. But I’m still hanging around as chairman of the board.

I do not meddle with the CEO — my only problem is I think he’s better than I was. As the third and last member of the family to run the place, it’s wonderful to see someone doing a good job and entirely understanding the culture of the place.

Can you speak to the influence that Forest Lawn had on cemetery design nationally?

It was Hubert Eaton who came up with the idea, and it was a philosophical idea that drove the physical change in the cemetery. You probably saw the big Builder’s Creed etched in stone outside the mausoleum — what Eaton said in that is what makes Forest Lawn different. He had this notion that a cemetery should be for the living as well as a sacred repository for the deceased. Part of that was getting the appearance of the sweeping lawns and open vistas rather than having it cluttered with all of these tombstones and monuments. The idea caught on across the country and even in other countries. It really changed the way hundreds if not thousands of cemeteries ended up being developed.

The big difference is that a lot of them copied the stuff that they could see, but they forgot the component of trying to be some place that was uplifting and part of the community. In the next 10 days, we’ll have five Dia de los Muertos celebrations in four of our cemeteries, and combined we’ll have 20,000 people there. And they’re all free. For this Dia de los Muertos, we’ll have tamales and soft drinks and we’ll have a ceremony that’s appropriate for it … the kids come, it’s a day of celebration, the reuniting of deceased and the living. “A place where lovers new and old can stroll reminiscing of the past or dreaming of the future” (as Eaton wrote in his creed).

Hubert Eaton apparently disliked community mausoleums — and was persuaded by efforts on the part of the tombstone dealers and “monument men” to discredit the practice of building them. How did Forest Lawn end up with one of the most impressive mausoleums in the U.S.?


Entrance to the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn – Glendale.

That gets back to a practical thing — he didn’t have one to sell. I think that’s what that was all about. That flyer from the National Monument Builders Association just said, “Wow, if there are people building mausoleums, they’re not going to buy big expensive tombstones and monuments.” Once he got control of the development of Forest Lawn, he changed his tune. He was on a roll — once he got into it, it fit neatly into his view of the cemetery being of the noble art and architect.

What can we learn about the history of Los Angeles by considering the history of Forest Lawn?

Forest Lawn is probably something that could only have happened in Los Angeles. The guy who told me that was Bob Skotheim, (former president) of the Huntington Library … Bob and I were talking, and he said things like Disney and Eaton at Forest Lawn were enabled by this brave new culture of the West. You think of innovation — as stable as the Eastern part of the country is, the technology has all been out here on the West Coast. I think what you can learn from Forest Lawn is, you can have innovation that stabilizes, not like the tech industry that needs to continue to evolve to survive — we evolve, but it’s not like you have an old Intel chip that won’t run anything. We’re still here and performing for that first interment that we made in 1906 — we’re still taking care of him. There’s a lesson in stability, and a lesson in — I don’t know if it’s community activism, or just community involvement, but for the most part, people think very highly of us, because of the way we handle both families in distress and dealing with community.

We have to talk about the crazy collection of art work at Forest Lawn, like the scale replica of Michelangelo’s David and the enormous mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The question I had when I visited was: Why?


A replica of Michelangelo’s David at Forest Lawn.

Art is something that enriches people’s lives — from a business standpoint, when Eaton got rid of the upright tombstones, one of the things people did back then in other cemeteries was “who can have the biggest tombstone” — he realized from a business standpoint that some people wanted to spend money to do that, and he wanted that money. He was a salesman. But he’s thinking philosophically about it — “I’ll let people put their name on it, but it won’t be all on top of each other, it will be spread around for everybody to enjoy.” That’s a self-funded art collection. We don’t have anybody’s name on any of the Michelangelo pieces, just because it doesn’t seem right. They’re all reproductions, we don’t deny that, but they are marble, and we do have all of his major works. It’s a pretty complete sample, but that’s a very small percentage of our artwork. We have more than 1,000 original statues, [and] the majority of them are original statues made by established artists just for us. They’re predominantly in classical themes, not that there’s anything wrong with modern art, but part of what Eaton (or Hubie, as his friends called him) understood was the classical form of art had stood the test of time for many centuries, so by sticking to that it was more likely to not look dated.

What is the future of Forest Lawn? I mean this both in terms of how many years you have left to inter people there — but also, what will it be in the future, and for the community? How will it change as the community around it changes?

As to the life of the cemetery, as time goes on every cemetery figures out how to make better use of land. The slow and steady increase in cremation is much more land efficient than full-body burial.

It’s not a linear slope to the end of the cemetery, which is why it’s so difficult to predict. In a math class or a philosophy class, here’s you and here’s the other side of the road. You go halfway across the road, and halfway the remaining distance … you never get there, but you end up with this long, long tail. The question is: When is the cemetery functionally out of business? How long can they keep dribbling it on? We have just over 1,000 employees, and if we dropped our cemetery and funeral services by half, we’d have half the employees. Eventually you start slacking off, but we don’t really know how to predict that. I turn 71 next month, so it’s well beyond my lifetime. I would guess that we’ve got another generation’s worth, and some of the properties are bigger than others. Glendale is the oldest and it’s tight, but it’s only six miles from Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, so we still have a huge amount of land.


Mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Forest Lawn – Glendale.

As far as what the cemetery is? Hopefully, we keep working on getting the endowment care fund [and] we develop community programs that change over the years. We do the traditional things, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, things that most cemeteries in the country do. From a standpoint of religion, we’re willing to serve anybody. We deal in some areas with various Asian cultures that want to consider Feng Shui for their burial, so we’ve had the Feng Shui masters out to say, “Okay, how do we design this so it has good Feng Shui?” [We] try to observe customs for ethnic groups that are appropriate to them and not just say, “You have to do it our way.”

Do you have a favorite story about Forest Lawn?

“Tell me about the celebrities!” I say, you know what, virtually everyone who’s buried here was a celebrity to someone. Do we have movie stars? Yes, movie stars, rich people, poor people. Why do the rich and famous come here? Because they know we’ll get it right, whether they want to have a huge service or absolutely no publicity. For one service we closed Forest Lawn Glendale for the day and we had the police literally sweep the grounds and get the paparazzi out of the trees.

One of the most famous structures and symbols of California is the Golden Gate Bridge, designed and built by Joseph Strauss. His memorial on his crypt is a bas relief of the Golden Gate, with the bridge in it. When his wife died some time after him, her memorial is the Golden Gate, without the bridge. You can speculate — was she proud of him for doing that? Was the bridge more important than she was? There are a thousand ways you can interpret that.

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