Monday, August 13, 2012

Where Death and Life Meet

            Amidst the constant noisy hub of activity that is Burbank, California, also known as the Media Capital of the World, is a place of pure peace. A place where one can go to reflect and meditate and feel the joy of being alive. It’s not a church, or a quiet corner café, or even a Zen center or metaphysical bookstore.  It’s a cemetery. A vast, landscaped memorial park nestled in the rolling Hollywood Hills.
            I first discovered Forest Lawn Memorial Park as most people do, as a tourist anxious to see the burial spots of the rich and famous. My husband at the time and I lived close by and could even see the beautiful park-like grounds from our upper-story apartment window, but we were reluctant to go there at first. After all, how many people spend their free time at a graveyard! And yet, when we did first venture to visit, we were surprised to see hundreds of others just like us, cameras in tow, wearing their morbid curiosity on their shirt sleeves as they walked the peaceful lanes and strolled over the grassy hills dotted with the heavy gray stones of the known and the unknown, looking for names of stars and celebrities.
            More than just a high-priced burial place for the financially well-off, there are many touristy things to see at a place like Forest Lawn, such as old restored churches, Southwestern museum exhibits and plenty of gorgeous statues and historical monuments. But the real attraction is the graves – each marker telling a brief but loving story of a life lived out. Once you get the celebrity grave hunting out of your system, you settle into a slow pace of perusing the less flashy markers, and you begin to notice something. That even the smallest lived life, even the most obscure existence, even the least celebrated amongst us, touches the lives of others like a silken web that connects us all.
As anyone who has ever visited Forest Lawn, or any beautiful cemetery grounds, will tell you, something strange begins to happen once you’ve been there a while. Something transforming and wondrous. Something that changes your whole perspective on death – and life. For as you walk the Courts of Remembrance, as you stroll along Morning Glory Lane, bending over to read the inscriptions of love, hope, dreams and memories, you begin to feel an incredible sense of peace. Suddenly, the vast landscape of death and mourning becomes quite different in the quiet stillness of your own contemplation. Slow and sweet, like a soft rain the realization comes. That there is no death here, only bones and ash and the remains of a physical body that started from and returned to rich, dark earth. That life is in the spirit, the love, and the memories. That although all these people had died, their lives and legacies live on in the hearts and minds of those who come to visit. Family, friends, loved ones.  Even strangers like me who just wanted to see Liberace’s lavish crypt or the place where Bette Davis lay forever a silent star, and yet found myself more changed, more transformed by those names that few would recognize.
This awareness, this “opened up” feeling of connectedness, is what makes places like Forest Lawn so special. I imagine any beautifully landscaped cemetery, surrounded by nature, would produce just such a rapturous experience. For when we are made to look, really look, at our fears and anxieties about death and what lies beyond, we sometimes find a most surprising thing. That there are no endings, only new beginnings on an infinite journey. These are the lessons that can only be learned in the quiet stillness of a sacred place. These are the lessons that can only be absorbed when surrounded by tranquility, immersed in inner peace.
            I visited Forest Lawn many times after that, often alone, and I had several experiences one could describe as “ecstatic” as I walked the lanes that circled the hills and sat in meditation before a beautiful statue of Christ in the Courts of Remembrance. And each time my spirit soared, even amidst all the reminders of death, at the certainty I felt that life is eternal. That the spirit cannot die. That love lives on.
These people, not one of whom I ever knew personally, were all a part of me. Some invisible strand connected us, some intangible, but altogether real common thread that wove us together like a massive and beautiful quilt, throbbing with love and fear and change and joy and pain and everything it means to be alive.  I felt sure of that, and I feel sure of that today, as I sit in my new home in the natural and inspiring beauty of northern San Diego county, far from the rolling hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the people whose names I read in silence and sent a silent prayer to. Far from the warm breeze as it whispers through the grave markers and mausoleums. Far from the flashy crypts of celebrated stars, and the simple head stones of stars equally bright, equally loved, just not as well known. So far, and yet somehow still so connected…
              …like a silken web.

“I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as eternal life is unlike death.”  Dr. Hubert Eaton, Founder




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