BACK

 

Half in Love with Easeful Death

 

by Evelyn Waugh

 

This article appeared in the Catholic magazine The Tablet on 18th October 1947. It has very much the same text as his radio talk.

In a thousand years or so, when the first archaeologists from beyond the date-line unload their boat on the sands of Southern California, they will find much the same scene as confronted the Franciscan Missionaries. A dry landscape will extend from the ocean to the mountains. Bel Air and Beverly Hills will lie naked save for scrub and cactus, all their flimsy multitude of architectural styles turned long ago to dust, while the horned toad and the turkey buzzard leave their faint imprint on the dunes that will drift on Sunset Boulevard.

For Los Angeles, when its brief history comes to an end, will fall swiftly and silently. Too far dispersed for effective bombardment, too unimportant strategically for the use of expensive atomic devices, it will be destroyed by drought. Its water comes 250 miles from the Colorado River. A handful of parachutists or partisans anywhere along that vital aqueduct can make the coastal strip uninhabitable. Bones will whiten along the Santa Fe trail as the great recession struggles Eastwards. Nature will re-assert herself and the seasons gently obliterate the vast, deserted suburb. Its history will pass from memory to legend until, centuries later, as we have supposed, the archaeologists prick their ears at the cryptic references in the texts of the twentieth century to a cult which once flourished on this forgotten strand; of the idol Oscar - sexless image of infertility - of the great Star Goddesses who were once noisily worshipped there in a Holy Wood.

Without the testimony of tombs the science of archaeology could barely exist, and it will be a commonplace among the scholars of 2947 that the great cultural decline of the twentieth century was first evident in the grave-yard. The wish to furnish the dead with magnificent habitations, to make an enduring record of their virtues and victories, to honour them and edify their descendants, raised all the great monuments of antiquity, the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, St. Peter’s at Rome, and was the mainspring of all the visual arts. It died, mysteriously and suddenly, at the end of the nineteenth century. England, once very rich in sepulchral statuary, commemorated her fallen soldiers of the First World War by a simple inscription in the floor of an Abbey built nine centuries earlier to shelter the remains of a Saxon king. Rich patrons of art who in an earlier century would have spent the last decade of their lives in planning their own elaborate obsequies, deposed that their ashes should be broadcast from aeroplanes. The more practical Germans sent their corpses to the soap boiler. Only the primitive heathens of Russia observed a once-universal tradition in their shrine to Lenin.

All this will be a commonplace in the schools of 2947. The discoveries, therefore, of the Holy Wood Archaeological Expedition will be revolutionary, for when they have excavated and catalogued, and speculated hopelessly about the meaning of, a temple designed in the shape of a Derby hat and a concrete pavement covered with diverse monopedic prints, and have surveyed the featureless ruins of the great film studios, their steps will inevitably tend northward to what was once Glendale, and there they will encounter, on a gentle slope among embosoming hills, mellowed but still firm-rooted as the rocks, something to confound all the accepted generalizations, a necropolis of the age of the Pharaohs, created in the middle of the impious twentieth century, the vast structure of Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

We can touch hands across the millennium with these discoverers, for it is in the same mood of incredulous awe that the visitor of our own age must approach this stupendous property. Visitors, indeed, flock there - in twice the numbers that frequent the Metropolitan Museum in New York - and with good reason, for there are many splendid collections of Art elsewhere but Forest Lawn is entirely unique. Behind the largest wrought-iron gates in the world lie 300 acres of park-land, judiciously planted with evergreen (for no plant which sheds its leaf has a place there). The lawns, watered and drained by 80 miles of pipe, do not at first betray their solemn purpose. Even the names given to their various sections - Eventide, Babyland, Graceland, Inspiration Slope, Slumberland, Sweet Memories, Vesperland, Dawn of Tomorrow - are none of them specifically suggestive of the grave-yard. The visitor is soothed by countless radios concealed about the vegetation, which ceaselessly discourse the ‘Hindu Love-Song’ and other popular melodies, and the amplified twittering of caged birds. It is only when he leaves the 7½ miles of paved roadway that he becomes aware of the thousands of little bronze plates which lie in the grass. Commenting on this peculiarity in the Art Guide of Forest Lawn with Interpretations Mr. Bruce Barton, author of What can a man believe? says: ‘The cemeteries of the world cry out man’s utter hopelessness in the face of death. Their symbols are pagan and pessimistic ... Here sorrow sees no ghastly monuments, but only life and hope.’ The Christian visitor might here remark that by far the commonest feature of other grave-yards is still the Cross, a symbol in which previous generations have found more Life and Hope than in the most elaborately watered evergreen shrub. This reproach will soon be removed in Forest Lawn’s own grand way by a new acquisition, a prodigious canvas of the Crucifixion which took thirty years of the Polish painter, Jan Styka’s life to complete; it will require a vast new building to house it. A miniature, 1/49th of the area of the original, now occupies one whole side of the largest hall in Forest Lawn and an explanatory speech has been recorded for the gramophone, identifying the hundreds of figures which in the original abound in life size. The canvas has had an unhappy history. Shipped to the U.S.A. in 1904 for the St. Louis Exhibition, it was impounded for excise dues and sold, without profit to the artist, to its importer, who was, however, unable to find a pavilion large enough to house it. Since then it has lain about in warehouses, a prey to ‘silver fish,’ and has been shown only once, in the Chicago Opera House, where it filled the entire stage and extended far into the auditorium. Soon it will form a suitable addition to the wonders of Forest Lawn.

These can be only briefly indicated in an essay of this length. There is the largest assembly of marble statuary in the United States, mostly secular in character, animals, children and even sculptured toys predominating; some of it erotic, and some of it enigmatically allegorical. There is also what is claimed to be the finest collection of stained glass in America, the glory of which is ‘The Last Supper’ in the Court of Honour; the original by Leonardo da Vinci has here, in the words of Pictorial Forest Lawn, been ‘recreated in vibrant, glowing and indestructible colours.’

There are gardens and terraces, and a huge range of buildings, the most prominent of which is the rather Italian Mausoleum. There in marble fronted tiers lie the coffins, gallery after gallery of them, surrounded by statuary and stained glass. Each niche bears a bronze plaque with the inmate’s name, sometimes in magnified counterfeit of his signature. Each has a pair of bronze vases which a modest investment can keep perpetually replenished with fresh flowers. Adjacent lies the Columbarium, where stand urns of ashes from the Crematory. There is the Tudor-style Administration Building, the Mortuary (Tudor exterior, Georgian interior) and the more functional Crematory. All are designed to defy the operations of time; they are in ‘Class A steel and concrete,’ proof against fire and earthquake. The Mausoleum alone, we are told, contains enough steel and concrete for a sixty storey office building, and its foundations penetrate thirty-three feet into solid rock.

The Memorial Court of Honour is the crowning achievement of this group. ‘Beneath the rare marbles of its floor are crypts which money cannot purchase, reserved as gifts of honoured interment for Americans whose lives shall have been crowned with genius.’ There have so far been two recipients of this gift, Gutzon Borglum, the first sculptor in history to employ dynamite instead of the chisel, and Mrs. Carrie Jacobs-Bond, author and composer of ‘The End of a Perfect Day’ at whose funeral last year, which cost 25,000 dollars, Dr. Eaton, the Chairman of Forest Lawn, pronounced the solemn words : ‘By the authority vested in me by the Council of Regents, I do herewith pronounce Carrie Jacobs-Bond an immortal of the Memorial Court of Honour.’

There is at the highest point a water-tower named ‘The Tower of Legends,’ where at the dawn of Easter Sunday a number of white doves are liberated in the presence of a huge concourse whose singing is broadcast ‘from coast to coast.’ Of this building ‘a noted art authority’ has remarked: ‘It depicts, more truly than any structure I have ever seen, real American architecture. It deserves the attention of the world’ (Art Guide). But this precious edifice, alas, is due for demolition and will soon give place to the non-sectarian, Bishopless ‘Cathedral’ which is to house Jan Styka’s masterpiece and provide in its shade fresh galleries of urns and coffins.

There are already three non-sectarian churches, ‘The Little Church of the Flowers,’ ‘The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather’ and ‘The Church of the Recessional.’ The first is, with modifications, a replica of Stoke Poges Church where Gray wrote his Elegy; the second a reconstruction of the ruins of a chapel at Glencairn, Dumfriesshire where Annie Laurie worshipped; the third, again with modifications, is a replica of the parish church of Rottingdean in Sussex where Rudyard Kipling is claimed by Dr. Eaton to have been inspired - by heaven knows what aberration of oratory from the pulpit so artlessly reproduced - to write Kim. The American visitor may well be surprised at the overwhelmingly British character of these places of worship in a State which has never enjoyed the blessings of British rule and is now inhabited by the most cosmopolitan people in the United States. The British visitor is surprised also at the modifications.

It is odd to find a church dedicated to Kipling, whose religion was highly idiosyncratic. The building is used not only for funerals but for weddings and christenings. Its courtyard is used for betrothals; there is a stone ring, named by Dr Eaton the ring of Aldyth, through which the young lover is invited to clasp hands and swear fidelity to what Kipling described as ‘a rag and a bone and hank of hair.’ Round the courtyard are incised the texts of Recessional, If, and When earth’s last picture is painted. The interior of St Margaret’s, Rottingdean, is not particularly remarkable among the many ancient parish churches of England, but the architects of Forest Lawn have used their ingenuity to enliven it. One aisle has been constructed of glass instead of stone, and filled with pot-plants and caged canaries; a chapel, hidden in what is no doubt thought to be devotional half-darkness, is illuminated by a spotlit painting of Bougereau’s entitled ‘Song of the Angels’ ; in a kind of sacristry relics of the patron saint are exposed to veneration. They are not what ecclesiastics call ‘major relics’; some photographs by the Topical Press, a rifle scoresheet signed by the poet, the photostatic copy of a letter to Sir Roderick Jones expressing Kipling’s hope of attending a christening, a copy of Lady Jones’s popular novel, National Velvet, an oleograph text from a nearby cottage; and so forth.

What will the archaeologists of 2947 make of all this and of the countless other rareties of the place? What webs of conjecture will be spun by the professors of Comparative Religion? We know with what confidence they define the intimate beliefs of remote ages. They flourished in the nineteenth century. Then G. K. Chesterton, in a masterly book, sadly neglected in Europe but honoured in the U.S.A. - The Everlasting Man - gently exposed their fatuity. But they will flourish again, for it is a brand of scholarship well suited to dreamy natures who are not troubled by the itch of precise thought. What will the professors of the future make of Forest Lawn? What do we make of it ourselves? Here is the thing, under our noses, a first class anthropological puzzle of our own period and neighbourhood. What does it mean?

First, of course, it is self-evidently a successful commercial undertaking. The works of sculpture enhance the value of the grave sites; the unification in a single business of all the allied crafts of undertaking is practical and, I believe, unique. But all this is the least interesting feature.

Secondly, the Park is a monument to local tradition. Europeans, whose traditions are measured in centuries, are wrong to suppose that American traditions, because they are a matter of decades, are the less powerful. They are a recent, swift and wiry growth. Southern California has developed a local character which is unique in the United States. The territory was won by military conquest less than a century ago. In the generations that followed the Spanish culture was obliterated, and survives today only in reconstructions. The main immigrations took place in living memory, and still continue. In 1930 it was calculated that of the million and a quarter inhabitants of Los Angeles half had arrived in the previous five years; only one tenth could claim longer than fifteen years’ standing. In the last seventeen years the balance has changed still more in the newcomers’ favour. Of this vast influx the rich came first. There was no pioneer period in which hungry young people won a living from the land. Elderly people from the East and Middle West brought their money with them to enjoy it in the sunshine, and they set up a tradition of leisure which is apparent today in the pathological sloth of the hotel servants and the aimless, genial coffee-house chatter which the Film Executives call ‘conferences.’

It is not the leisure of Palm Beach and Monte Carlo where busy men go for a holiday. It is the leisure of those whose work is done. Here on the ultimate, sunset-shore they warm their old bodies and believe themselves alive, opening their scaly eyes two or three times a day to browse on salads and fruits. They have long forgotten the lands that gave them birth and the arts and trades they once practised. Here you find, forgetful and forgotten, men and women you supposed to be long dead, editors of defunct newspapers, playwrights and artists who were once the glory of long-demolished theatres, and round them congregate the priests of countless preposterous cults to soothe them into the cocoon-state in which they will slough their old bodies. The ideal is to shade off, so finely that it becomes imperceptible, the moment of transition, and it is to this process that Forest Lawn is the most conspicuous monument.

Dr. Eaton has set up his Credo at the entrance. ‘I believe in a happy Eternal Life,’ he says. ‘I believe those of us left behind should be glad in the certain belief that those gone before have entered into that happier Life.’ This theme is repeated on Coleus Terrace: ‘Be happy because they for whom you mourn are happy - far happier than ever before.’ And again in Vesperland: ‘ ... Happy because Forest Lawn has eradicated the old customs of Death and depicts Life not Death.’

The implication of these texts is clear. Forest Lawn has consciously turned its back on the ‘old customs of death,’ the grim traditional alternatives of Heaven and Hell, and promises immediate eternal happiness for all its inmates. Similar claims are made for other holy places - the Ganges, Debra Lebanos in Abyssinia, and so on. Some of the simpler crusaders probably believed that they would go straight to Heaven if they died in the Holy Land. But there is a catch in most of these dispensations, a sincere repentance, sometimes an arduous pilgrimage, sometimes a monastic rule in the closing years. Dr. Eaton is the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking service.

There is a vital theological point on which Dr. Eaton gives no ex cathedra definition. Does burial in Forest Lawn itself sanctify, or is sanctity the necessary qualification for admission? Discrimination is exercised. There is no room for the negro or the Chinaman, however devout; avowed atheists are welcome, but notorious ill-doers are not. Al Capone, for example, had he applied, would have been excluded, although he died fortified by the last rites of his Church. ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was refused burial, because, although acquitted by three juries of the crime imputed to him by rumour, he had been found guilty, twenty years or so earlier, of giving a rowdy party. Suicides, on the other hand, who, in ‘the old customs of death’ would lie at a crossroads, impaled, come in considerable numbers and, often, particularly in cases of hanging, present peculiar problems to the embalmer.

Embalming is so widely practised in California that many believe it to be a legal obligation. At Forest Lawn the bodies lie in state, sometimes on sofas, sometimes in open coffins, in apartments furnished like those of a luxurious hotel, and named ‘Slumber Rooms.’ Here the bereaved see them for the last time, fresh from the final beauty parlour, looking rather smaller than in life and much more dandified. There is a hint of the bassinette about these coffins, with their linings of quilted and padded satin and their frilled silk pillows. There is more than a hint, indeed, throughout Forest Lawn that death is a form of infancy, a Wordsworthian return to innocence. ‘I am the Spirit of Forest Lawn,’ wrote K. C. Beaton, in less than Wordsworthian phrase : ‘I speak in the language of the Duck Baby,* happy childhood at play.’ We are very far here from the traditional conception of an adult soul naked at the judgment seat and a body turning to corruption. There is usually a marble skeleton lurking somewhere among the marble draperies and quartered escutcheons of the tombs of the high renaissance; often you find, gruesomely portrayed, the corpse half decayed with marble worms writhing in the marble adipocere. These macabre achievements were done with a simple moral purpose - to remind a highly civilized people that beauty was skin deep and pomp was mortal. In those realistic times Hell waited for the wicked and a long purgation for all but the saints, but Heaven, if at last attained, was a place of perfect knowledge. In Forest Lawn, as the builder claims, these old values are reversed. The body does not decay; it lives on, more chic in death than ever before, in its indestructible class A steel and concrete shelf ; the soul goes straight from the Slumber Room to Paradise, where it enjoys an endless infancy - one of a great Caucasian nursery-party where Knights of Pythias toddle on chubby unsteady legs beside a Borglum whose baby-fingers could never direct a pneumatic drill and a Carrie Jacobs-Bond whose artless ditties are for the Duck Baby alone.

That, I think, is the message. To those of us too old-fashioned to listen respectfully, there is the hope that we may find ourselves, one day beyond time, standing at the balustrade of Heaven among the unrecognisably grown-up denizens of Forest Lawn, and, leaning there beside them, amicably gaze down on Southern California, and share with them the huge joke of what the Professors of Anthropology will make of it all.

* A bronze figure by Edith Barrett Parsons representing a laughing nude child with poultry. It inspired Leo Robinson’s poem “After the lights went out”.

 BACK