Photo by Matt RF Webb

These Video Tours of L.A. Graveyards Are To Die For

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The YouTube series of star-studded cemeteries produced by Arthur Dark are becoming must-see tombstone tourism.

It was almost like Arthur Dark was born for this.

He’s got the voice, the passion, video editing chops, research skills, the look — and the vocabulary that lends to entertaining (and respectful) YouTube tours of notable graveyards around L.A. and the country.

Amassing over 100,000 subscribers since it’s debut in 2017, Dark’s Hollywood Graveyard channel is one of the most popular series of its type online.

We had a chance to ask him about our local cemeteries, the diversity of sizes and styles of celebrity gravestones, and what’s the deal with unmarked graves. Join us, won’t you?

Arthur Dark, on location. Photo by Arthur Dark.

What got you interested in documenting graveyards on YouTube?
It was a combination of many things: combined interests in entertainment, Hollywood history and a dash of the macabre. 

Initially, I just found visiting famous graves myself fascinating, being able to connect with and pay my respects to individuals whose work I knew and loved. And in connecting with individuals I already knew, I would be introduced to new ones along the way, introduced to them, and their work — movies, TV shows, music, writings, etc., opening me up to an as-of-yet untapped mine of entertainment. I was delving much deeper into the history of Hollywood and entertainment, and in doing so, broadening my own horizons, so to speak.

These were experiences I was sure others would enjoy, and appreciate, but it’s not always easy (or possible) to find famous graves. So I sought to find ways to make tombstone tourism more accessible, make it less intimidating, easier to find the graves of these notable individuals, or if not possible to visit them in person, allow audiences to visit them “virtually” through video tours. Hence Hollywood Graveyard was born.

The first in a series of several visits to Forest Lawn Hollywood

What do you mean by “a dash of the macabre”? Would you consider yourself a goth or goth-friendly?

Oh, you know, I’m just your average guy who loves ghost stories, zombies, haunted houses, Halloween, horror, the paranormal, the writings of Poe, all things Tim Burton/Danny Elfman, that sort of thing.

You obviously spend a great deal of time and care in the production of each video, from still photos to video clips to movie posters and sound samples… how long does an average video take for you to complete?

It’s hard to quantify as it really depends on a number of factors, including the location of the cemetery, the number of individuals featured, etc. A lot of work goes into researching a location and individuals before I ever set foot within a cemetery. Then there’s finding all the sites, filming, editing, etc. Anyone who has followed my channel knows I’m not a daily vlogger, nor weekly for that matter. These are short documentaries that take weeks to produce from concept to release.

Merv Griffin’s tombstone at Westwood’s Pierce Brothers Cemetery. Photo by Arthur Dark.

Sometimes celebrities put funny things on their headstones, any we should know about?

It’s always fun to see the personality of the individual shine through on their tombstone; comedians in particular are known for witty epitaphs.

Just a few that come to mind: Merv Griffin: “I Will NOT Be Right Back After These Messages”

Jack Lemmon’s simply says “Jack Lemmon In”

Rodney Dangerfield: “There Goes the Neighborhood”

Billy Wilder: “I’m a Writer, But Then, Nobody’s Perfect” (this is an allusion to the final line in his movie “Some Like it Hot.”)

Joan Hackett: “Go Away - I’m Asleep”

The first of four videos about the Westwood Village Memorial Park.

Los Angeles has a plethora of cemeteries, most of which have famous people resting in peace. Although Hollywood Forever seems to get the most attention, the Westwood Village Memorial Park appears to have the most famous people there per square foot. It feels like it gets overlooked. Does it?

I believe Westwood does have the most stars per-capita, including one of the most visited in the world: Marilyn Monroe. It’s the easiest cemetery to navigate on foot and stumble onto someone famous every other step.

There are several reasons why it’s often overshadowed, and one of them is the fact that it is quite literally overshadowed. It’s very difficult to find a tiny cemetery hidden in the shadows of high-rise buildings in Westwood. Additionally, Hollywood Forever is very active in terms of cultural events, tours, movie screenings, concerts, etc., so it’s more readily and regularly in the public eye.

In your research do you ever study how much a cemetery would cost to be buried in? If so, it would seem that Westwood, because it’s so tiny, would cost more than Hollywood Forever, for example. True?

A fan of Marilyn Monroe visits her final resting place at Pierce Brothers, Westwood Village Memorial Park. Her second husband (of three) Joe DiMaggio, famously placed a 20-year order of a half-dozen roses to be put next to the iconic star’s crypt three times a week.
Photo by Tony Pierce.

I’ve never gone out of my way to research the numbers, but they do cross my radar from time to time. Grave plots should be thought of the same way as real estate. As availability decreases and demand increases, prices go up. And it’s all about location, location, location. Being buried next to the lake is exponentially more costly than being inturned in a niche at the top of a 10-foot wall. 

Space at Westwood is quite limited, so yes, even the smallest of plots can go for a premium.  But even Hollywood Forever, or Forest Lawn (say in Great Mausoleum), have prime real estate that can go for tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. All this said, I’m not in the funeral business, and don’t pay much attention to the business side of things, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help in steering anyone researching their own final destination.

What’s the deal with unmarked graves of famous people? Why wouldn’t they want a marker?

There are several reasons why a stars’ (or anyone’s) grave may remain unmarked. First of all, it should be noted that markers don’t necessarily come with the purchase of a grave plot. Perhaps just as toys come with the disclaimer “Batteries not included,” so too should grave plots come with a similar disclaimer, “Headstone not included.” So that said, it’s up to the next of kin or estate to facilitate the placement of a marker.

Some stars explicitly decide they don’t want their grave to be marked, for whatever reason, be it privacy or financial.  Another reason may be that the family or estate simply couldn’t afford it. Just because someone was a star, doesn’t mean they died rich (many died in poverty). Another reason is timing… it takes time to get one made and placed. Perhaps the family simply hasn’t gotten around to it yet, or are holding off for a period of time, as is customary in certain cultures.

Frank Zappa’s unmarked grave at Westwood Village Memorial Park. Image by Arthur Dark.

Can you name some of your favorite unmarked graves?

Just a few examples of the many stars whose graves remain unmarked include: Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, George C Scott, Lon Chaney, Steve Allen, Stepin Fetchit, Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy), and lots more.

There have been a few that I initially covered that at the time were unmarked, but later did get marked, including Natalie Cole, and Bill Paxton. Again, sometimes it just takes time — decades in some cases, like the legendary John Wayne, whose grave remained unmarked for 20 years.

We’re also working with another blogger and Hollywood historian, Jessica over at Silence is Platinum, to try and get permission from next of kin and raise funds for the placement of markers for some stars who remain unmarked. She’s already undertaken several successful campaigns, including the marking of Joseph Keaton, vaudevillian and father of Buster Keaton.

One of the nice things about your channel is you often show graveyards where the director of the film might have a large headstone and the star has a simple one not far away. Sometimes it’s surprising how big of a difference their markers are in size. Is there an example of this that took you aback?

It is fascinating to see the many varied ways that famous entertainers decide to be memorialized. From the grand and opulent monuments of legends like Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, and Elizabeth Taylor, to the small, humble, nearly impossible to find niches of stars of equal caliber, like Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson, and W.C. Fields.  Which goes to show that the size of one’s grave is not necessarily directly proportional to the brightness of one’s star.

Jack Lemmon’s humorous headstone at Westwood Village Memorial Park. Photo by Tony Pierce.

Speaking of humble markers, could it be a Catholic thing? In your video about Holy Cross in Culver City, there are a handful of stars who one would think would have died with lots of money for grand headstones: Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth and Jimmy Durante come to mind. Yet they each have the most simple markers.

It’s definitely not a Catholic thing. If you go to some of the east coast Catholic cemeteries, like St. John Cemetery in Queens, you’ll see some pretty grand monuments. It’s more a “cemetery thing.”

Each cemetery has their own guidelines for how graves can be marked. Sometimes those guidelines are very specific, especially at the memorial park- style cemeteries, which usually require flat lawn markers of more-or-less equal size, which is what you see at Holy Cross.

Film fans wait for the sun to set before a screening of “Mad Max: Fury Road” at Hollywood Forever. For years the cemetery has hosted events, concerts and shown films among its large variety of gravesites. Photo by Tony Pierce.

When one visits places like Hollywood Forever, there are giant headstones, a few obelisks look like miniature Washington Monuments. Do you think this was a financial decision or one of modesty for these giant stars to have an ordinary marker?

Hollywood Forever is not a memorial park-style cemetery, and they’re very accommodating of unique monuments, hence the broad spectrum of the types of graves you see at Hollywood Forever. Where a star decides to be laid to rest partially informs the type of monument they will have, regardless of their wealth or status. 

Dark’s visit to Santa Barbara’s oceanside cemetery.

Recently you did a video from Santa Barbara which looked to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Southern California. Is it?

It is quite stunning.

Nestled up against the Pacific Ocean I’d say it has the best view, but it’s not necessarily the most beautiful.

Just as a painting or a piece of music is beautiful for different reasons than another, so too do the various cemeteries we’ve visited exhibit their own unique beauties - from the mausoleums, to the grounds and the monuments themselves.

Your latest video, spotlighting “The Wizard of Oz” is a bit of a departure from your typical videos. It has already received over a half million views. Will we see more in that style soon?

“The Wizard of Oz” episode was a fun one.  It’s was a special edition I’d thought of doing for a while, but realized as 2019 was the 80th anniversary of the film’s release, that now was the time to do it.

There was also the serendipity of being able to find essentially the entire principal cast (except Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch, who was cremated), and much of the principal crew. It’s such a special movie for people of all ages, the audience really responded to it. 

We do themed editions from time-to-time, like “The Twilight Zone,” Halloween, Food, etc, and I think people get a kick out of them. They’re different than our standard Famous Grave Tours, which are based on a specific cemetery or location, rather than a theme. You will definitely see more themed episodes like this in the future.

Al Jolson’s memorial includes a 120-ft waterfall that spills into a shimmering reflecting pool below. Situated on a plot, almost 40 by 80 feet, the six-pillar structure of 16 different types of imported Italian marble is 75 feet tall and topped by a dome with hand-set, mosaic tiles depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments.
Photo by Arthur Dark.

Is Hillside Memorial Park the most over-looked cemetery in LA?

We hardly hear much said about it and yet it has lots of stars, it’s easy to get to, and anyone who goes to or from LAX has passed by it.

I don’t know if it’s the most overlooked, but it’s possibly the most unwittingly seen… as you mentioned, everyone driving the 405 passes right by it, the Al Jolson monument in plain view.

Is Jolson’s fountain the most over-the-top (for lack of a better word) monument in LA?

Yes, yes it is.

I am sure you get emails or comments about why did you leave this person out or that one. Do you ever go back and edit someone in — or do a second video of more people if you see that there were enough that you mistakenly overlooked?

I frequently get those kinds of comments, yes. I can’t edit videos once they’re uploaded, only replace them. So for any errors, I have to replace the video entirely. As for omissions, we do re-visits from time to time, and try to include some we missed, or were unable to get to. No video or series is meant to be comprehensive. To quote our Twilight Zone Special, there will always be “one more…”

Johnny Ramone’s memorial at Hollywood Forever.
Photo by Arthur Dark.

There is so much going on in Hollywood Forever. You have done three wonderful videos about it. Several of the stars you feature in that trilogy are people who didn’t spend a lot of years here but have chosen to make LA their final destination.

At the top of my mind are Chris Cornell (who is known for being part of the Seattle Grunge scene) and two members of the Ramones who will forever be tied to NYC’s CBGB. Why do you think so many stars end up being buried in LA?

I’ve done four actually, revisiting a year after the first trilogy. And that’s a very good question.

I think people believed Chris Cornell would eventually be laid to rest in Seattle. I have no insight as to why he, or others chose (or their families chose) Hollywood as a final resting place. Perhaps in death they still wished to be accessible to their fans, and as LA is one of the tourism and entertainment hubs in America, it seemed a logical locale. 

As for the Ramones, both Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone were living here in LA when they died, so that might be why they were interred here (actually, as I understand it, Johnny’s ashes are held by his widow, and both will be interred at his iconic monument after her death). Tommy and Joey Ramone, on the other hand, were living on the east coast, and are buried out there.

Many big stars do return to their roots after death, like Myrna Loy (Montana), Ava Gardner (North Carolina), and Chris Farley (Wisconsin), to name a few.  

One of my favorite graves is the Def grave by Rick Rubin, the famous record producer, who buried that word at Hollywood Forever. Is there a reason you left it out?

Check out our Hollywood Forever #4 video, we visited the grave of Def

Rick Rubin, besides being a heralded producer, founded the wildly successful labels Def Jam and Def American in the 1980s. In the early ’90s, Rubin reportedly saw the word “def” in the dictionary, which to him erased any street cred it once had, so he chose to bury the word. He had a New Orleans jazz band lead a procession (which included Tom Petty, Rosanna Arquette and Slayer) through Hollywood Forever and Rev. Al Sharpton oversaw the ceremony. Rubin then launched American Recordings. Screenshot by Arthur Dark.

Look at that. My bad. Have you run across other novelty graves like that?

I haven’t come across another grave of inanimate objects, but there is the Penn & Teller grave (cenotaph) at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

No, they’re not buried there (obviously), it’s the payoff of a magic trick, featuring the 3 of clubs. 

The Penn & Teller cenotaph at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. Photo by Arthur Dark.

Are you from L.A.?

No, I’m from Utah actually. Moved here for graduate school at USC.

What did you study there?

I studied film music. USC has some of the best programs in the nation for film and music, especially considering working industry professionals teach and mentor there. I stayed because this is where movies are made… also there’s no snow here.

Los Angeleno