Hollywood is Getting Grave

Kari Bible is one of the few living people you can find at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She often strolls around the grounds in her vintage dress and black lace parasol conversing with cemetery patrons about Hollywood and its history. A group of tourists with sneakers and cameras are usually right behind her eager to keep up with their guide. Bible is showing them the dead, more precisely Hollywood’s dead.

Bible is a grave hunter. She started the cemetery tour in 2002 after running into several Hollywood history enthusiasts who were also looking for graves in Hollywood Forever.

“There wasn’t anybody doing a tour and I felt people needed more information than a name on a metal plate,” Bible told her tour group.

Her tour is one way to experience Hollywood’s history and pay tribute to Old Hollywood stars. Bible includes Hollywood Forever’s most famous graves such as Rudolph Valentino’s and Douglas Fairbanks’. Valentino’s grave is a modest marble and metal nameplate located in one of the mausoleums, while Fairbanks’s is a grand memorial that features a pool and is also the location of movie screenings during the summer.

“She really knew what she was talking about and made the graves come alive,” said Cassie Wegeng, a history student from Austin, Texas, who decided to take the tour during her vacation to Los Angles because of her interest in Hollywood and history.

The success of Bible’s tour can be attributed to the popularity of celebrity grave hunting. Several high profile celebrity deaths in the past few years have sparked an interest in the hobby.

Celebrity grave hunters go to cemeteries around Los Angeles and find the final resting place of Old Hollywood. Often they record the burial information they find such as landmarks or directions to the grave. They also take photos and sometimes share their information through websites such as Findagrave.com or on personal blogs.

The Internet has become the main tool for grave hunters because websites often have the exact location of plots. Findagrave.com not only gives specific landmarks to graves but they also provide their complete GPS coordinates.

For many grave hunters it is a fascination with history and Hollywood, not death, that attracts them to the odd hobby.

“It’s history from the ground up,” says Lisa Burks, a journalist from Burbank and a grave hunter. Burks’s interest in grave hunting started while growing up in Michigan.

“There was a lakeside cemetery where our founding fathers are buried and I would go there with my mom and it just felt peaceful,” said Burks.

Burks continued her interest in cemeteries when she moved to California in the late 1980s.

“After that I just continued my interest in celebrity graves and when I took the drive from Michigan to California I stopped in Fairmount, Indiana to visit James Dean’s grave, which was the first celebrity grave that I really sought out.

“I went to Forest Lawn with my sister to look at the art work and we came across Stan Laurel’s grave,” said Burks, “We had to look it up in a Los Angeles tour book to see if it was really him and sure enough it was”.

Forest Lawn’s two cemeteries located in Glendale and Hollywood Hills are the most exclusive cemeteries in Los Angeles, with many celebrities buried there. In addition to Stan Laurel, the Hollywood Hills location also counts Bette Davis and Brittany Murphy as some of their celebrity dead.

But the Glendale location is the crown jewel of celebrity grave hunting.. Among those buried here are Walt Disney and Clark Gable as well as Jean Harlow and Humphrey Bogart who have two of the most popular graves in the cemetery and also two of the hardest to see since they are located in a private garden. Only those who are approved to have access to the gardens are allowed to visit and security is heavily enforced.

Forest Lawn is also known for being the most difficult cemetery to go grave hunting. Staff members are tight-lipped about locations of graves and will usually only give information to immediate family members. Security guards constantly patrol the grounds looking for suspicious activity. However, grave hunters can pass through these obstacles by using sources on the Internet to locate the plots more efficiently.

The community of grave hunters started with the Hollywood Underground, a group of grave hunters who began communicating with one another on the Internet in 1997.  After going on grave hunts together, they would record the whereabouts of graves on the Internet.

Catherine Olen, a former mortician, turned her hobby of grave hunting into a career with two books, a website and private tours. Olen considers the use of the Internet for grave hunters as both positive and negative.  She says grave hunters initially relied on word –of- mouth to locate graves but now the Internet has created more resources for information. However, Olen states that one downside of the Internet is that false information is often posted.

“It can be a hindrance because on several websites people haven’t taken the time to accurately post information and there is a lot of misinformation,” said Olen.

Steve Goldstein, one of the most famous grave hunters and someone who has appeared on television shows such as Good Morning America and Good Day L.A., has first hand experience with misinformation regarding celebrity graves.

After the death of Michael Jackson in June 2009, Goldstein was contacted by several media outlets to comment on the apparent whereabouts of Jackson’s grave.

“People began contacting me expecting me to know where he was buried,” said Goldstein, “I had mentioned on Good Morning America that I guessed he would temporarily be kept in Barry Gordy’s crypt and before I knew it the New York Post and several other websites were saying he was there.”

The death of Michael Jackson sparked several new websites and blogs devoted to locating his grave. Jackson’s grave is said to be in Forest Lawn Glendale in a private garden that is completely closed off to public access and which has several security cameras to deter trespassers.

“ I have gotten requests to see recent graves and I have no problem taking them but when it comes to Michael Jackson I don’t even bother for security and legal reasons and out of respect of the family,” says Olen.

High profile celebrity deaths in recent years have caused an increase in grave hunting and have mainstreamed the hobby. Grave hunters have now become the authority on locating recent graves and many people have contacted grave hunters like Olen to show them specific graves. However, the increase in the hobby’s popularity is not welcomed by all grave hunters.

“The hobby has definitely been mainstreamed in unfortunate ways,” said Goldstein. More people wanting to visit their favorite celebrity’s final resting place mean an increase in security in cemeteries.

“We used to operate on being inconspicuous,” says Goldstein, “Publicity makes it hard for us.”

Grave hunting has found a way to bring the living and the dead together and has humanized the people of Hollywood’s past.

“It humanizes the headstones and you get a real sense of ‘Hey, everyone dies,” says Burks.

To most people it may seem a strange way to pay respects to a famous actor or actress, but according to Goldstein, “It’s not about death it’s about history, it’s about art and it’s about paying tribute to these people”.

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