Death in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Magazine has recently republished a 2011 article by Ben Ehrenreich which has “Death in L.A.” forming part of its subtitle. That is not far off the title of the German translation for Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One (Tod in Hollywood). Waugh plays a prominent part in the article with several references. He is first mentioned in connection with the Calfornia custom of adopting euphemistic terms in referring to matters relating to death and burial:

[Once you are dead]…whoever you are and wherever you live, you will go. You will not be you anymore. Not exactly. You will be a corpse, a cadaver, a decedent, a “loved one.” You will be remains. The death industry employs more euphemisms than politicians do…The novelist Evelyn Waugh had his fun with this: “Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment.” 

The article goes on to discuss Waugh’s parody of Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale as Whispering Glades in the novel:

Southern California, home to the theme-park necropolis Forest Lawn, came to represent the apotheosis of America’s disturbingly “euphoric” approach to mortality… To Evelyn Waugh, who parodied Forest Lawn in his 1948 novel The Loved One, such vulgarity was symptomatic of the “endless infancy” of West Coast culture…Waugh was better humored about the practice, if no less horrified at the notion of being, as he put it, “pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore, / Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost or gone before.”

The quote in this case is from Dennis Barlow’s poem eulogizing Sir Francis Hinsley which was in turn the parody of a Victorian poem about Heraclitus. The article also mentions at this point the later writings of British born Jessica Mitford who described many of the features of Forest Lawn in her The American Way of Death. Not mentioned is what is probably the original parody of Forest Lawn by a British writer; this is in Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939). He called it the Beverly Pantheon and located it on top of the Hollywood Hills rather than in the San Fernando Valley. Waugh had read Huxley’s book in which the Beverly Pantheon plays only a minor role as one of the many schemes of its owner Jo Stoyte, an oil tycoon and real eatate developer. Stoyte bears little resemblance to the owner of Whispering Glades in Waugh’s novel. Waugh told his agent that he had read Huxley’s novel which “flirted” with the theme (Letters, p. 517), but Waugh apparently did not make the connection to Forest Lawn itself until he was told about it by a London friend, Sheila Milbanke, who happened to be in Los Angeles. She took him to Forest Lawn, and he was so impressed he returned several times on his own (Davis, Mischief in the Sun, pp. 61-62).

Forest Lawn is also discussed in the context of the practices of Los Angeles cemeteries to exclude or segregate burials by race, nationality or income bracket:

It was not Forest Lawn’s ill-concealed class structure that Waugh and Mitford found so distasteful but the cemetery’s brash modernity and autocratic cheer. [Footnote omitted.] Forest Lawn was designed to be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness,” declared founder Hubert Eaton (“The Builder”) in his “Builder’s Creed,” which begins with his assertion that “I believe in a happy eternal life” and goes on to banish every symbol of judgment or even grief from its architecture.

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