If you’re having a hard time processing the scale of death produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a California alternative for wrapping your mind around the carnage:
Visit the largest, prettiest cemetery you can find. I recommend the original Forest Lawn, in Glendale, the most Californian of cemeteries.
I recently walked the 290 acres of this memorial park, the first of six Forest Lawn parks in Southern California, and found that it clarified my thinking and improved my mood.
The place also helped me to put in perspective the full human toll of COVID-19. Since Forest Lawn opened here 114 years ago, in 1906, it has interred 340,000 souls on this property. Under current projections, the U.S. will reach 340,000 COVID deaths in January.
If you’re looking for global perspective, try Colma, the Bay Area’s city of cemeteries, the final resting place for 1.5 million people; the world should surpass 1.5 million COVID deaths before Christmas.
Such statistics are tragic—and reflect a fundamental human failure: We experience individual death intensely (be it a friend’s death or the killing of George Floyd), but struggle to recognize death in the aggregate. This myopia is why we need cemeteries right now.
“Cemeteries are not just a place to reflect on the past,” wrote longtime Forest Lawn chief executive John Llewelyn, in A Cemetery Should Be Forever. “They remind us to keep the present in perspective.”
Especially when the present is so frightening.
Forest Lawn’s mission was about putting a sunny California spin on death.
“I believe in a happy eternal life,” Forest Lawn’s first real leader Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917. “I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong, because they depict an end, not a beginning… I shall try to build at Forest Lawn a Great Park… 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.”
The resulting memorial-park has been critiqued as a “Disneyland of Death.” But at this moment, I found visiting the happiest cemetery on Earth soothing, and thought-provoking.
I encountered joggers, bikers, painters, and babies in strollers. I heard birds sing as I enjoyed 360-degree L.A. views from the esplanade. A half-dozen people chatted amiably while admiring “The Mystery of Life,” a sculpture group of 18 human figures gathered at stream that flows toward an unknown destination.
By its usual standards, Forest Lawn was pretty quiet. Its art museum—which houses an important collection of stained glass and William Bouguereau’s 1881 painting “Song of the Angels”—was closed. There were no school field trips on the grounds. Tens of thousands of people, including Ronald Reagan, have been married at Forest Lawn, but during my visit there were no weddings in the cemetery’s three churches, which were locked.
Still, I enjoyed the way the place resembles Southern California in miniature, with its different topographies (windswept hills, cool valleys, a sprawling basin), and obsession with being big (Forest Lawn notes that its large wrought-iron gates are twice as wide as those at Buckingham Palace, and the Hall of Crucifixion houses “the world’s largest permanently mounted religious painting”).
I found powerful stillness in the Great Mausoleum, where I chatted with a woman who was looking for the crypt of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who popularized yoga and meditation in the U.S.
Below the mausoleum is an older, flatter cemetery section so filled with light it feels like heaven’s front porch. There I walked amidst many graves from 1918 and 1919, most of them people who had died in their 20s and 30s, the common age of Spanish flu victims.
From there, I headed up to the Court of Freedom, which includes a giant mosaic reproduction of John Trumbull’s “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” next to the founding document’s text. I found myself reflecting on Jefferson’s wisdom in putting “life” before “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness.”
Death is a constant of course, but the speed of this pandemic is overwhelming us, to the detriment of the living and the dead.
We are in such a desperate rush to get past COVID that we’re trying to ignore its realities. It seems likely that we’ll forget this era as fast as we can.
We shouldn’t ever put the pandemic behind us. We will all need to remember its lessons, to honor its sacrifices and its heroes, so we might see its after-life as a beginning, not an end. Here in California, I hope we will memorialize every last one of our pandemic dead, with a monument that is beautiful and colorful and big, and makes people happy when they visit it.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.