Dark Tourism: exploring our obsession with celebrity graves

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Surrounded by towering apartment blocks, constant traffic, and looming palms, Westwood Memorial Park is about as L.A. as it gets. This small, artificial, and highly manicured patch of grass looks entirely out of place at first glance. But take a wander, and you’ll discover it contains the last remains of some of Hollywood’s most iconic residents. These graves attract tourists from all over the world, and with the likes of Frank Zappa, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Marilyn Monroe all sharing the same small plot of land, it comes as no surprise.

The Peirce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park wasn’t always home to the area’s celebrity class. The cemetery was established in 1905 but has been a burial ground since the 1880s. After Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose in 1962, Joe DiMaggio, her former husband, chose Westwood not because it had a reputation for hosting the ghosts of celebrities but because it was the final resting place of her mother’s friend Grace Goddard, as well as Goddard’s aunt, Ana Lower, both of whom cared for Monroe as a child.

DiMaggio resented the entertainment industry, holding it responsible for Monroe’s demise. He’d spent the previous year desperately attempting to drag her away from the corrupting influence of the industry elite and had no intention of making the funeral a Hollywood affair. DiMaggio chose Westwood precisely because it was small and out-of-the-way. Unfortunately, Monroe’s grave quickly attracted imitators. Westwood has become one of the most popular places for Hollywood burial since. Truman Capote, Dean Martin, Ray Bradbury, Rodney Dangerfield, and Billy Wilder were all buried on Westwood. Hugh Hefner went so far as to buy a tomb next to Monroe’s (crypt number 24 in the Corridor of Memories) to be close to the first Playboy bunny in death. Today, Monroe’s grave is constantly adorned with flowers, cards, letters and the lipstick marks of devotees.

Frank Zappa, another notable Westwood resident, went one step further than Monroe to avoid the prying public. The rocker is actually buried in an unmarked grave. Fans speculate that the decision was made because his family were concerned that a more noticeable plot might be vandalised. They had every reason to be worried. Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise, Paris, has been graffitied countless times and was once even the site of a riot that prompted officials to erect metal gates around the star’s headstone. Even the graves of cult figures like Nick Drake have become sites of pilgrimage over the years. Indeed, since the late ’80s, Drake’s death has become something of an industry in itself, with his modest grave in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth attracting hordes of fans every year. As Nick’s sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, noted in 2014, his grave – the very symbol of his death – is often treated as some sort of souvenir. “We’ve just had the gravestone removed because it’s been rather badly defaced one way and another with people chipping away at it,” she began. “Somebody once said they saw someone taking a piece away from Nick’s grave and being thrilled. This person who said they saw that, said they tore them off a strip.”

Some might call this kind of vandalism a natural bi-product of fame. But things have been known to get much darker. In 2000, the tombs of Ronnie Van Zant of Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, a vocalist, were broken into. The trio died in a plane crash near Gillserg, Mississippi, in 1977 and were buried at Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Florida; that is until the 30th of June when The Florida Times-Union reported: “Vandals broke into a tomb and disturbed their remains yesterday morning. Authorities did not speculate on a motive, nor whether the intruders may have been deranged fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd seeking a bizarre memento or simply vandals out for a night of destruction.”

A police officer, Mary Justino, said that Van Zandt’s casket was found on the edge of the cemetery grounds alongside a plastic bag containing Gaines’ cremated ashes. “The bag had a hole in it,” Justino noted. “At least preliminarily it looks like a very small amount of the cremains may have spilled out of the bag when they pulled it from the urn.” Such stories shed light on our dark obsession with celebrity culture. Visitors to sites like Pere Lachaise might cite historical interest as the motivation behind their explorations of the sprawling necropolis, but they also allow us to dissolve the boundary between the real world and the unreal realm of celebrity.

When we stand by the grave of someone like Morrison, we are thrilled because the proximity between us and them has been eradicated. Suddenly, we are spectral participants in the narrative; we are the ghosts that haunt the ghosts. Unfortunately, the sense of the unreal often overwhelms us, leading to the treatment of celebrity graves as an extension of their occupants, things which are ours to consume. Considering that it was the public’s insatiable hunger that indirectly led to the demise of figures like Monroe, it’s little wonder grave tourism in places such as Westwood Memorial Park is tinged with moral ambiguity.

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