It is twilight and a misty fog dances between the bars of the foreboding wrought iron gate. The movie starts in ten minutes; we just spent thirty minutes looking for parking along the mangled side streets parting like veins from Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. It’s fine, though; no one’s standing in line, just an empty roped off queue. The ushers take our ten-dollar donations and we sidle past them laden with sleeping bags, blankets and groceries from Trader Joe’s.
We have a bit of a hike before us, and there’s not much in the way of light: just a few lampposts near the main office building and then winding lanes surrounded by freshly mown lawns, weeping willow trees, and moss covered benches. It’s September, so the weather is nice, getting cooler but still temperate and even keel. Everyone is already assembled for the movie, so it’s quiet as we walk along the paths; we’re careful not to veer off trail lest we be accused of being disrespectful. Dark gray marble slabs with etched in names and in some cases faces – greet us. Beginning dates of long ago and end dates of before we were born hold silent vigil. We’re here to watch a James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause, and the silent repose of still reflection pools and white mausoleums gives rise to eerie, unpleasant thoughts about ashes and dust.
After several minutes winding alongside grave laden paths, we can hear noise on the next rolling lawn. DJs are spinning music you need to be on drugs to understand and people have spread their blankets out; some have even brought electric candles and picnic baskets with real wine glasses. It’s not terribly crowded and there’s space between blankets, so it’s easy for us to get a spot up front. We lay out the sleeping bag, I wrap a throw blanket around myself, and we start unloading our bounty from Trader Joe’s. We’re only 23 years old, so the idea of bringing nice wine glasses or fixing our own meal was lost upon us; instead we take turns taking swigs out of a bare bottle of Rosé. Some of our friends saunter over; the twilight is beginning to spread to a thick darkness blanketed by the fog. They bring more bottles of wine; we take turns taking swigs. The movie starts.
Watching movies that you’ve seen a thousand times that everyone quotes together and everyone laughs at together is kind of surreal. You go your whole life thinking that this movie was made for you, that you have a special connection to it, and here you are out in a cemetery with a hundred other people who felt the same way about the same movie.
Tonight, we’re definitely the youngest group; the rest of these people could be at the Hollywood Bowl. They wear clothes that tell us that they are probably in their 30s with money, jobs, and small children. We are dressed in clothes from thrift stores, smoking pot, and talking about old movies and culture as though we were there to know what really happened. We are pleased with ourselves because we are young but we are cultured. Most other people our age are out drinking in a club on Sunset Boulevard or in coffee shops in Silver Lake.
The movie ends and there’s an excited clap. As people collect their things and wind their way out onto the paths, the spell of the outdoor movie theater wears off. Now, it finally dawns on me that I am in a cemetery. We’re in the middle of the gridlock of Hollywood, but I can hear nothing except the whispers of rustling trees and drunken conversations of my fellow movie patrons. The fog kisses our cheeks and every now and again the paths are lit up by small flickering candles left in mourning on tombstones. I try to read all the names; a lot of the stones have faces etched into them, and this scares me for some reason. Scares me to think that real people die. That these people, separated by fifty to a hundred years were really just like me. It’s peaceful, and in this environment, for a moment anyway, I come to terms with my own mortality. I usually can’t fathom it, it makes me cry and kick and scream. But if to die means to rest in such a beautiful place that people will come to visit, to watch movies in, then it can’t be such a terrible thing at all. We pass Johnny Ramone.
It’s February, and I get a call from my Aunt one morning. She sounds angry but I have no idea why; she simply says, Call your mother. I call my mother and for a moment my stomach drops. My mind is racing trying to figure out what I must have done, how much trouble I’m in. But it dawns on me that I’m an adult and live five hundred miles away, and she is crying so it’s probably not me. Daddy died, she screams and breaks off into muffled wails, sounds I’ve never heard before.
The next week is a blur of thinking macabre thoughts I’m too young to have. Right now death is not like the cemetery – not peaceful and surreal and comforting. There is no beautiful disaster like James Dean brooding for the cameras. Instead death has become a torrential downpour of emotions I don’t understand and don’t want to feel.
When I think of my father, all I can think of is Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. I coulda been a contender! That’s how my dad talked, with a very distinct Brooklyn accent and a quiet despair that he never achieved the greatness he always knew he was destined for. But he did achieve it, just not the way he thought he would. He was well loved. So well loved, in fact, that he had two funerals. The first time I give the eulogy, it’s sad, but I do a good job, and I know he is watching and proud. I feel closure: acceptance that he is gone, and life will go on, and I will be OK. But that second time, in front of his family that we never see, I lose it long before I walk up to the podium. I stutter and choke on my words from the soft splashes of tears drizzling down my face. My mom stops me and says she will finish for me, but I yell at her and everyone there not to touch me, that I can do this. I have to.
I’m shaking when I finish, but it’s done. No one knows, but he asked me to do this. To write his words and say them after he was gone. He was morbid, and I think he knew he was not long for the world at only 52.
It’s June. Los Angeles is cloudy in June from the marine layer. They call it June Gloom. It’s been four months, and I still cry every day but it’s easier to talk now, and I can smile if something is funny. I notice that when I drink now I bring up my dad and make everything awkward. My friends smile reassuringly and pat me on the back but don’t say anything. I like that. I hate it when people say, I’m sorry or be strong. Those words don’t mean anything and they just sting because they’re so callous and routine.
They’re hesitant to ask me, I can tell. So I say, I hear they’re playing Harold and Maude at the cemetery. I’d like to go.
They look at me in concern, Are you sure you want to go… there?
I think about it for a moment. Yes, yes I want to go…there. Why not?
They shrug, unconvinced, but we’re too old now to get crazy drunk for no reason and too broke to eat out at the fancy restaurants; cemetery movies are affordable and cool on a Saturday night.
After going to Trader Joe’s to get our snacks and wine, we head out with our sleeping bags and blankets. We’re shocked to see a line filling the entire queue. That’s never happened before. We wait in line with our friends; there’s more young people this time around. They are wearing wayfarers, flannel, and cut off shorts with Tom’s shoes. Some of them are drinking cans of PBR; others have classed it up with bottles of Blue Moon. I guess more people have heard about the cemetery movies. It seems like a good crowd, we joke with people in line and share our food. The queue area feels like Disneyland, you can’t see much other than trees past the ominous iron gate. I imagine passersby wonder what it is we’re all doing out here, there’s nothing but a sign that says Hollywood Forever. You wouldn’t even know we’re at a cemetery.
When the gates open, the line starts moving breezily by. Summer is in full swing and the sun in Los Angeles is oppressively bright. We won’t be greeted by evening for at least two more hours. The closer we get to the gates, the more I become aware of the breeze rustling through the grasses and trees inside. As I pass through the gate, it becomes difficult to breathe, like something squeezing my lungs together. We walk through the winding paths, and every detail of every stone whispers to me. Candles, lights, benches, even the flowers people have laid all whisper for my attention. My sunglasses are on, so no one can tell I’m weeping. They’ve seen it so much lately that they probably wouldn’t mind, but it embarrasses me all the same. The cemetery is different during the day. Shadows of palm trees stretch out across the lawns like the necks of giraffes and bright blooming flowers dot the graves and banks of reflection pools. Families of ducks swim peacefully and the waterfalls swish. The cemetery seems to be teeming with life, and that soothes me a little bit.
We get to the lawn where DJs are spinning, and there’s only space in the back near the garbage cans. We try to squish in as much as we can, but the lawn is blanketed with people having picnics and enjoying the summer’s eve. As my friends set up our spot, I inconspicuously wipe the tears from my face and remove my sunglasses. The mausoleum wall where they project the films is a bright luminous white, like a shining brick pearl.
I tell them that I’ve never seen the cemetery during the day and want to go have a look around. I start walking and one of my friends hurries after. We walk arm in arm, not saying much except for moments of awe when we can’t fathom how a cemetery could be such a beautiful place. We find Johnny Ramone again. He is now a statue playing guitar laden with quotes from famous musicians saying their goodbyes. I’m sad, but it doesn’t affect me much. I just take it in. Other people sidle over, drinking cans of beer and giggling as they rush up to his statue and put their arms around it in poses for pictures. It angers me a little bit but I don’t say anything, my friend and I just silently walk away with our brows furrowed. We start walking back toward our picnic spot; we are heading directly into the setting sun. The shadows move in around tombstones and mausoleums and trees like hands gently tucking in children for a night of rest. With each new shadow comes a new chill as the grounds drop several degrees in only a few minutes.
We rejoin our friends and sit in a circle taking swigs of the wine and sharing plates of cheese and crackers and meats. This is the first time we’ve been here when it’s still been light out, and we’re all staring in opposite directions; maybe none of them have felt the pang of death as I have, but they are all thinking about it right now. The lawn is loud today; there are lots of drunken twenty-something’s having conversations about art and film.
The fading light finally creeps in and with it comes a cold wind. I put my blanket around me and lay down on my stomach supported by my elbows. It’s really hard to pay attention this time around, there’s so many more people having so many more conversations and we’re right near the dumpsters so people keep coming by and banging bottles and cans against hard plastic. I love Harold and Maude, there’s something depressing yet whimsical about it, but I’m having trouble focusing as my thoughts veer off to what it’s like to be dead and buried underneath a crowd of people. I wonder if you still can think when you’re dead, and how lonely it must be to be trapped in a box with nothing but your thoughts for eternity. I shudder at the thought of my own sleepless nights when I can’t get my brain to shut off.
My racing mind takes a more macabre turn as I think of how my dad was cremated. What if you really can think after your heart stops? What is that? Is that the soul? What if we silenced his soul by putting him to flame? It’s what he wanted so I don’t regret it by any means, but I still feel nervous. Also grieved that he can’t be in a beautiful place like this where I could come and visit him and we could watch movies together, even if I can’t see him.
I blink back tears and refocus my attention to the movie and wish I could drive off on a motorcycle like Harold and Maude. I feel the warmth of my friends’ arms against mine. I watch them as they watch the movie. Their faces have hope and are lit up by smiles. Even if dying is lonely, I have them now. I am loved, and so was my dad.
It’s September. It’s been seven months since I last talked to my dad. My friends that I haven’t seen for a while—a year or more—drive up from San Diego to see me. There’s a movie in the cemetery tonight. I haven’t been since June. I had tried to go see Beetlejuice, but somehow everyone knows about the cemetery. You have to go at least three hours early if you want to get in. They turn people away now. Fucking Los Angeles. Nothing can ever just be yours, the crowds eventually find it, chew it up, and then spit it out.
It’s Casablanca tonight. Everyone always says it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and I have to agree. The story, the emotions, the humor, the love: it’s all still relevant today, seventy years later. I’ve seen it once before, so I excitedly tell my friends about how great it is, how it lives up to the hype. My boyfriend has never seen it, my friends from years ago that I haven’t seen in so long have never seen it either. Nor have they been to the cemetery. It makes me happy to be the person to show them something that can only be experienced here.
We’ve moved. We don’t live two blocks from the cemetery anymore so we actually have to plan; we can’t just saunter in. We live in Culver City now which is ironic because that’s the original Hollywood. Remnants of studios and hotels have been renovated after years of neglect, just like the cemetery. Now Culver City is cool again, just like the cemetery.
The sun is an orange fire burning down on us and blinding me through my rearview mirror as we drive to Hollywood. It’s not far, but now that everyone goes to the cemetery we have to leave extra early to get in the traffic line. The line to walk into the gate is at least three blocks long, not even including the roped off queue lanes at the entrance. We’ve found a trick, though. If you brave the traffic, you can drive right into the cemetery and park without waiting in the queue.
Not only are we rewarded with an easy entrance, we’re one of the first cars in. We are here three hours early and the sun is still bright overhead, but we also get our choice of spots. We lay out the blanket up front and begin unpacking our picnic. The DJs are spinning against the backdrop of palms swaying gently in the breeze, not really what you think of when you picture a cemetery. Their tall trunks lining the perimeters are like sentries guarding the immortal ghosts of Hollywood.
I haven’t seen these friends since college and even though our lives are going in a thousand different directions, we pick up right where we left off and our conversations and humor are the same that they ever were. It’s in moments like these that I notice how as much as we may change our dreams and desires, there is still an essence that is utterly our own.
Our neighbors offer us pot. We smoke and chat with them. The girl is from Kentucky but decided to move out here to pursue her dream of being an actress. Her friend is a model and a waiter.
The DJ’s music slowly begins to fade out as the evening turns to night. The projector blasts into life and the black and white film reel explodes onto the white brick building. The movie starts and following uproarious applause, a hallowed hush spreads through the field. After a few moments, Humphrey Bogart turns his head – he’s suave and badass, even to this day. Everyone cheers for the nostalgia and comfort of a movie that transcends all of us.
My friends have never seen this movie, and I’ve definitely gone overboard talking it up, so I watch their reactions, their faces illuminated by moonlight. I watch everyone around us, the actress, the waiter, all the others like them. Tonight is the first time I realize that people don’t move to Hollywood because they want to be famous—it’s because they want to be remembered. No one could ever forget Humphrey Bogart, not when he’s still here among us, on the white brick mausoleum.
It’s also the reason that people like me come to the cemetery: because we want to believe that there is something after you die. That you won’t be alone, you won’t be forgotten, even if it’s only strangers that happen upon your resting spot while watching a film.
It’s the end of the movie, and I smack my friends to pay attention; the line they don’t realize they’ve been waiting for is coming. It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. They stare, awed. So many quotes in this movie they’ve heard before but had no idea where they originated. For some reason this makes me think of my dad and of myself. His loss means everything to me, but not to the changing world. Life will go on, whether I want it to or not, I think to myself as I stumble through the tombstones back to my car, back to the streets holding silent vigil for the ghosts of forever.
JT Siems is a writer and a perfumer under the banner of Sweet Tea Apothecary, historically inspired perfumes. When she’s not crafting perfume oils based on Dead Writers she enjoys writing fantasy and steampunk novels. To read her writing or learn how to make your own perfume, check out her blog at sweetteaapothecary.com or connect on Facebook or Twitter: @passtheteapot. Siems lives in Seattle with her husband, toddler, and evil cat.
I love how JT weaves the story of vastly different scenes of death – movies in a graveyard with that of her own very close, heartbreaking experience with death. Her talent at painting a descriptive picture made it feel like I was watching Casablanca in the cemetery and sipping on cheap wine with her. It’s touching, well written prose.