Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flattened Tombstones

King David Memorial Park, Bensalem (NE Philadelphia)

What do Nancy Spungen (of "Sid and Nancy" fame) and actor John Barrymore have in common? Admittedly, not much. However, they both have flat-to-the-ground tombstones. Spungen is buried in a cemetery where flat stones are required, and Barrymore, along with the rest of the Barrymore theatrical dynasty, seems to have chosen flat markers by choice. While practical, I can't imagine anything more mundane.

Mt. Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia

Back in the early 1990s, I made a trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale California to see the Lone Ranger's grave, among others. I found that the majority of the 250,000 inhabitants have flush to the ground grave markers - all the same size! I certainly didn't find it very attractive - grassy fields punctuated with cheesy modern sculptures here and there. I could find none of the graves I came there to see. I remember asking the groundskeeper why its like this, and he replied, beaming, “It makes it so easy to cut the grass!

Obviously, that's the main attraction - ease of maintenance. But I just don't get it. Granted, we could not reproduce the splendor of a Victorian sculpture garden cemetery today - the cost would be prohibitive. Plus, stone carving just ain't what it used to be! While such cemeteries had a distinct plan, the sheer variety of the monuments themselves gave an air of and uniqueness to each cemetery.

The trend today, of course, is vastly different. Flat markers, or "grass markers," as they're called on the Bertolini Memorials and Monuments website, are only one of many regulations we are warned about:


Most cemeteries have regulations and rules concerning the size, style, color, and design of headstone, markers and memorials. Some examples are:

1. Catholic cemeteries always require a religious design on the headstone.
2. Some may not allow porcelain pictures placed on the surface of a stone.
3. Many sections of cemeteries require specific styles of markers such as a flat type. This makes it easier for lawn care maintenance.

A cemetery can not refuse acceptance of your memorial as long as it meets their provided specifications. The client has the right to purchase their memorial from a vendor of their choice.

As it turns out, the Forest Lawn Cemetery chain (in Southern California) may have actually been the instigator of this trend toward flat grave markers. In 1906, Forest Lawn was founded by a group of San Francisco businessmen, with Dr. Hubert Eaton credited as its founder. According to Wikipedia, Eaton developed  the "memorial park plan," of eliminating upright grave markers.

[Eaton] was convinced that most cemeteries were "unsightly, depressing stoneyards" and pledged to create one that would reflect his optimistic, Christian beliefs, "as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness." He envisioned Forest Lawn to be "a great park devoid of misshapen monuments and other signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, beautiful statuary, and ... memorial architecture" - ref

Ed at Jack Kerouac's grave

So in a cemetery filled with flat markers, how do visitors even find the graves of their loved ones? If the grounds are not maintained, grass and dirt can just cover them up! And what about all the states where it snows? I can see Forest Lawn not needing to concern itself with this, but the Barrymore and Spungen graves are in the Northeast part of the U.S. - Pennsylvania, in fact. It snows here! And what about Jack Kerouac's flat stone in Lowell, Massachusetts? Do you just not go and visit your loved ones' graves in the winter? (Click here for an amusing video of an adventure in the snow.)

Granted, my trip to Glendale was in the early 1990s, and the Internet was not yet the wealth of information that it is today.Websites like now help us in our quest. During a current search for comedian Sam Kinison's burial place, I was surprised to find these directions!

Burial: Memorial Park Cemetery
Tulsa,Tulsa County
Oklahoma, USA
Plot: Section 28 - Garden of the Apostles in the SE quad. GPS coordinates are N 36°05.095 W 095°52.814.

I think I'll end my little rant here with a story about Spungen's grave, and how Sid Vicious' mom wanted to bury his ashes there. The punk rock musician from the Sex Pistols supposedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their suite at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan in 1978. Spungen was laid to rest at King David Memorial Park, Bensalem (NE Philadelphia), in Bucks county, PA. Vicious was arrested for the murder, but never went to trial. Three months later while out on bail, he overdosed on heroin and died. His mom, Ann, and some close friends had Sid's body cremated and intended to fulfill Sid's wish: "When I die, bury me next to Nancy."

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, by Eileen Polk (ref.)
Spungen's mother, however, wanted no part of this, so the keepers of Sid's ashes attempted to do what my family has done in the past - illegally bury them on another person's plot. As bizarre as the following account is, I can relate. (Read about my own bizarre experiences disposing of family cremains here and here). Eileen Polk describes the experience in the book, Please Kill Me, The Uncensored Oral History of Punk; Polk was a photographer and friend of Sid and Nancy.

We're standing at the gravesite and it was snowing. We were all crying. We just said some prayers and left some flowers.Then we drove around to the other edge of the cemetery. We parked the car and Ann [Sid Vicious' mother] took the ashes, went over the fence, back to the gravesite, and dumped Sid's ashes on Nancy's grave. Then she came back and got in the car and said, 'Well, they're finally together.' And that was that.

Further Reading:

Read my other two Cemetery Traveler blog postings about disposing of cremains:
Nana's Ashes
Ceramic Death Portraits

About Forest Lawn Cemeteries, from Wikipedia:

"Forest Lawn's 300 acres of intensely landscaped grounds and thematic sculptures were the inspiration for the biting commentary of Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel The Loved One and Jessica Mitford's acerbic The American Way of Death. Many commentators have considered Forest Lawn to be a unique American creation, and perhaps a uniquely maudlin Los Angeles creation, with its 'theme park' approach to death."

Many thanks to Melanie Hoch at REPO records in Philadelphia for inspiration for this article.