Los Angeles may be a lonelier town than most if you don’t know anyone here, but it’s no introvert’s paradise either. When you are reeling from a breakup or coping with a 7.0 hangover and don’t want to run into familiar faces, the city suddenly seems as sheltering as an Iraqi highway. When the Garbo mood hits, I retreat to the inner-city sanctum of our cemeteries. Strolling along these necropolitan fairways, you discover your sudden power over time: you can stand still all afternoon or you can feel lucky to be alive and leave immediately.
Many years ago, I worked at Paramount Studios. In my exploratory wanderings, I discovered that magic door in the wall that led to an adjacent, neglected cemetery. A favorite filming location, since it had acquired the look of an interesting garden. The cemetery was like an aging movie star, a little worn at the edges, but fascinating and able to tell some wonderful stories. The stories came from the stones and from Hollywood old timers who spent quiet afternoons there. Founded in 1899 by I.N. Van Nuys and Colonel Isaac Lankershim, it is the burial spot for many Hollywood luminaries. Since then, the cemetery has been re-discovered and as a result lost all its charm, but the stories remain.
East L.A. cemeteries are my favorite: old places huddled inside a city that does not allow itself to age; quiet oases nestled within the freeway roar and gangland din. Larger than most urban parks, they promise a shimmering calm that will never be rezoned into swap meets or strip malls. Moreover, if one of East L.A.’s biggest ironies is the scarcity of Spanish street names, the macabre twist is that it’s home to some of L.A.’s largest Caucasian neighborhoods, of sorts. Decades after the first waves of white flight rolled Valley ward, the parents and grandparents of today’s suburbanites remain here in their horizontal vigils, covered by two yards of Boyle Heights. The names chiseled into granite blocks speak of deserted ancestors, of relatives abandoned on the east bank of the river. “Et in Arcadia Ego” takes on an entirely new meaning in L.A. County.
On Third and Humphreys is the Serbian Cemetery. Minuscule and well tented across the street from St. Sava’s Church, both established in 1909. Closed now, except for special celebrations. The Serbs lit out for San Gabriel some time ago, leaving their ancestors here between the Long Beach and Pomona freeways. Like other Eastern Europeans, the Serbs are big into memorial cameos. The severe faces look reproachful, almost angry, as though they had been staring into the mug-shot camera of some Hapsburg cop long ago. On most cemetery hikes, you fall into the habit of comparing death dates of spouses. Take, for example, the stone of the Malakhovs. Lydia (b. 2-15-06) died 7-14-90, while husband Petr (b. 1-9-98) is down as 8-3-90. A difference of three weeks. How had Petr died? From a broken heart? Suicide? Where is Edgar Lee Masters when we need him?
Whereas the carefully manicured Serbian grounds resemble the Grim Reaper’s putting green, the dinky Molokan’s tract across the street is leaf strewn and weed choked, the inscriptions on its simple wooden markers worn away long ago. Wandering about this melancholy acre, you can’t help but feel the righteous denial and rejection of its ascetic believers seething below. The Molokans (Russian roughly, for “milk drinkers”- they allow themselves to imbibe the liquid during Lent), you see, are down on worldly vanities and pleasures. My corpse would literally bounce out of the ground if lowered into this place.
Is the old Chinese Cemetery, two blocks away on Eastern Avenue any cheerier? No, it is not. Sadly, it too is a dreary Boot Hill, with its gravestones packed tightly together.
Evergreen Cemetery, founded in 1877, on Evergreen between Lorena and Brooklyn, is a huge, nondenominational spread and was an early guarantor of plots for minority corpses. Multiculturalism even then! It has been said that black families who could not afford a hearse could be seen carrying their encoffined loved ones with them on the Red Car to Evergreen. There is a large Japanese section, with graves huddled around a tall war memorial dedicated to fallen Japanese-Americans in the services. Evergreen is also notable for its patch of Civil War veterans; the Union Dead can be found on the ‘southern flank’ of the cemetery, I kid you not. A large Chinese section with altars for incense burning is adjacent to the Civil War veterans.
The charm of Boyle Heights graves lies in their splendid isolation: unshadowed by high-rises and empty of visitors, they whisper stories about a long-vanished Los Angeles, a foolish, impetuous town that would one day become a neurotic, vain city. Comforting are the simple headstones. It is to these places of cool silence that I go when in need to get lost. I wander and wonder about their lives and the grave new world they went to.