There is deep solace and even joy to be found in cemeteries, and they’re one of the few spots that are so far largely immune to the hordes that make visiting so many other public places such a trial. But trends in cremation, pressures in the real-estate market, and other factors have made cemeteries less sacred than they once were.
On a hot summer day less than a month ago, at the Inglewood Park Cemetery near Los Angeles, a tourist in shorts and a sun hat stood among the marble crypts and blasted music from his phone, holding it aloft like Lady Liberty’s torch.
If you had stumbled on such a scene, you would likely have seen it as a grotesque act of disrespect. Sheesh, dude, why not drag out a lounge chair and pop a brewski while you’re at it? What’s wrong with people these days?
Here’s the thing, though: It wasn’t an act of disrespect. In fact, it was the opposite. It was an act of reverence.
I know because that guy was me. I was standing before the crypt of the legendary Ray Charles. Making sure no one else was close by spending time with a loved one at an adjacent crypt, I Spotify-ed Ray’s immortal version of “America the Beautiful,” released exactly 50 years ago this summer, the same arrangement he performed live at the World Series just a few weeks after 9/11. I played it as loud as I could, allowing it to bounce off the hard surfaces, in hopes that Ray might be able to hear it.
My wife, Tina, and I were likely the only people on planet Earth who were paying homage to Ray Charles at that very moment on a random Wednesday afternoon in July. Gazing at his name etched in the marble and listening to one of his greatest moments as a recording artist, I was deeply moved. I listened to every chorus and verse with focus and respect.
Earlier, I had done the same thing at the nearby crypt of Etta James, playing her majestic soul ballad “At Last.” Tina and I were in Inglewood primarily to pay respects to her grandmother, who for years was buried in an unmarked grave until Tina paid for a headstone. This was our first chance to see the marker. But we took the time to find the final resting places of notable people we admired at that cemetery and at Hillside Memorial Park, the Jewish cemetery in Culver City across town. I wanted to find some of the more “overlooked” but no less influential celebrities such as Larry Gelbart, the writer who created the TV show “M*A*S*H,” and Friz Freleng, the cartoonist who created Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and the rest of the iconic figures of the Warner Bros. cartoon universe.
See, for Tina and me, graveyards are a thing. Maybe it’s a function of reaching a certain age, but memorialization of the dead, once a dreary notion below my interest, has now become an area of fascination, mainly because it gives me a chance to engage in the ritual of appreciation of someone long gone and, in some cases, quasi-forgotten. Our interest in cemeteries sparked several years ago when we were in Paris and had the occasion to visit the unforgettable Père Lachaise cemetery. To our surprise, we spent almost all day there. Yes, we saw the much-abused gravesites of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, but we were even more entranced by being in the presence of the mortal remains of Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, Moliere, Modigliani, Gertrude Stein and others. It was only after visiting the graves of Héloise and Abélard that I followed a rabbit hole into learning about those legendary lovers from a thousand years ago.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed touring cemeteries and graveyards, not only to hunt down the graves of famous people, but to admire the final presentations of people whose names are unfamiliar. Standing before one piece of turf dedicated to one person is a spiritual exercise. It makes the abstraction of the past more real and connects you with those who came before, reminding you that every person represented on those headstones and markers had a life as hectic and stressful as your own. It also drives home the obvious, that if you’re gazing at headstones you’re very much still in “The Dash” (that is, the dash between the two dates on a tombstone, representing the lifespan).
Of course, generations have reached into family and cultural history in exactly the same way Tina and I have been doing, by visiting cemeteries. But that’s no guarantee that this ritual has a future. The burial of the dead might seem to be a fundamental and permanent part of the human experience. But that’s changing rapidly. Traditional burials are becoming less popular every year for a wide variety of reasons, including expense, environmental and land-use concerns, and the general decline in organized religion. More people are now cremated than buried in the U.S., with 57.5% opting for cremation in 2021, up 3% from just two years ago and up nearly 25% from 15 years ago, according to statistics from the Cremation Association of North America. (Those numbers in Canada are even higher, with nearly three-quarters of Canadians opting for cremation at death, a number that the U.S. is certain to reach or exceed in the next 20 years or so). Here in Santa Cruz County, cremation rates may reach as high as 70 percent.
Even if cremation is expanding dramatically in popularity, that doesn’t necessarily mean graveyards are doomed. Often, the ashes of the cremated will be interred in a cemetery, but, according to CANA stats, that could be as few as 20% of all cremations. Mostly, families take the ashes of their loved ones and sacralize them in a more-or-less free-lance manner, whether it’s in an urn on the mantelpiece or scattered in a beloved or significant place.
What’s lost here is, of course, a permanent, public spot where friends, loved ones, descendants, and even poorly dressed schlubs like me can come to memorialize a specific life from years, decades or even centuries ago. That was once the legacy not only of notable lives, but of millions of more humble ones, a marker that declared to the world long after death that “Hey, I used to live here, too!”
These trends also mean that both memorialization and cemeteries are shapeshifting as well. Many people who may have no gravestone or no mortal remains nevertheless have their names etched in park benches or other places outside the cemetery gates. And cemeteries are also being rethought in many cases. In Santa Cruz, for instance, music groups are creating performance pieces designed for and befitting a cemetery. In Los Angeles, at least one famous cemetery is the site for outdoor movie screenings (Yep, you can catch, to take the most questionable example, “Death Becomes Her” at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, right across from the Paramount lot).
The word “eternal” is often associated with these massive, often beautifully manicured landscapes of the dead. But there’s nothing eternal about them. Colma, the Bay Area’s famous town of cemeteries, was established after San Francisco decided to close all its supposedly “eternal” resting places and expel the dead, just over a hundred years ago. Prominent cemeteries aren’t going away any time soon. But trends in cremation, pressures in the real-estate market, and other factors have made cemeteries less sacred than they once were. They’re less likely to be paved over than to be simply forgotten.
There is, however, deep solace and even joy to be found in cemeteries, and they’re one of the few spots that are so far largely immune to the hordes that make visiting so many other public places such a trial. You too can visit Ray Charles and pay tribute to him. You too can play whatever song you think is appropriate. Chances are you won’t be disturbing anyone, except the dead. And, from my experience, they don’t seem to mind too much. They’re probably grateful for the attention.