A Visit to the Disneyland of Death

An essay is posted on the website Hazlitt.net describing the visit of writer Larissa Diakiv to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. The website is described as “a home for writers and artists to tell the best stories about the things that matter most to them […] be it art, sound, or text, fiction or non-fiction, humour or criticism […].” Forest Lawn is well known in this parish as Waugh’s Whispering Glades in The Loved One and due notice is given in Diakiv’s essay to Waugh’s writing on the subject as well as that of Aldous Huxley and, in more detail, Jessica Mitford.

Diakiv arrived at her destination, ususually for Los Angeles, by bus. What she describes is the setting more than its details. She accurately evokes the place without satirizing it, as Waugh did. She provides criticism where she finds it appropriate and gives a dispassionate summary of Forest Lawn’s history and antecedents. The title of the essay is “The Disneyland of Death.”

It turns out that she is something of an afficianado of graveyards, mentioning those she has visited in, for example, Guadalajara, Salem, and Montreal. One of the essay’s best passages relates to something not much mentioned by previous commentators such as Waugh–that is, the incongruity of Forest Lawn to its environment:

Glendale is in a chaparral ecosystem. It should be a landscape of coastal sage, drought tolerant yucca with pillars of dead flowers, silvery artemisia, Oak savannas, thickets of heathland, wildflowers. The cycle of the chaparral requires regular forest fires. Some plants need heat, smoke, or changes to the chemical composition of the soil to germinate. Some plants, called fire followers, like Phacelia, need the extra light after a canopy is burnt to grow. If you have seen Phacelia it would be hard to argue it isn’t magical. Iridescent blue whiskers poke out from clusters of bell-shaped flowers on a spiral stem. I have only seen photos. But these plants don’t fit into the nostalgic image of an imagined garden, a hegemonic Eden. California does not have the same climate as Cambridge or Milan. What did [founder Hubert] Eaton know about the ecology of the land he was building on? And where did he get his version of paradise? […]

To make a paradise grow in a semi arid state, massive amounts of water are needed. In 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that Forest Lawn’s then 125 acres of grass, 10,000 trees and 100,000 shrubs required an estimated 195 million gallons of water a year. The city of Glendale negotiated a deal where the cemetery would use recycled water rather than potable water, promising to supply 200 million gallons per year for 20 years, and help in the construction of a pipeline to deliver the water from a treatment plant to the cemetery. It takes a lot of water to create an oasis in a desert.

Although Disneyland is in her title, she doesn’t mention that, prior to the opening of that theme park, Forest Lawn was the single most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles.  That is no longer the case, as explained in a recent article in Evelyn Waugh Studies No. 49.2 (Autumn 2018): “Whispering Glades Seventy Years On.”.   Today, it is not even among the top 10. But this is no reason not to go there, and Diakiv’s essay should be read by any one contemplating such a visit. It is well written and also recommended reading for anyone who has been fascinated by Waugh’s descriptions of the place.

 

 

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