Her name is Janet Lee, and she spends much of her time in a booth at the main entrance to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Glendale, California. A graceful woman in her 50s or 60s, Lee is the one who greets visitors who ask – as I did yesterday afternoon – “Where is Michael Jackson’s burial plot?”
The answer is complicated. The deceased icon is entombed at Forest Lawn, and media reports say Jackson’s body is in the facility’s Great Mausoleum, an imposing structure of granite and marble that’s been called “the New World’s Westminster Abbey.” In the two weeks since Jackson’s entombing, Lee told me, scores of visitors (from as far away as England) have flocked to Forest Lawn to pay tribute to Jackson. The problem: No one at Forest Lawn will confirm exactly where the pop star’s body is. Not Lee. Not the Forest Lawn security guards with whom I spoke. Nobody. Forest Lawn doesn’t want the Gloved One’s remains to become a crowded, touristy pilgrimage site akin to Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, which – day and night – draws fans who scribble notes, drink from paper bags, and sing the songs (From “Light My Fire” to “The End”) that Morrison helped make famous.
Still, Forest Lawn issues its Can’t Tell Yous with a happy face. “I want you to have a good time,” Lee said, smiling, after handing me a Forest Lawn map that showed the Great Mausoleum and Jackson’s presumed sarcophagus. Outside the locked building, a guard told me that Jackson’s fans place bouquets of flowers by the mausoleum, and that Forest Lawn’s gardeners “come and take them to the grave.” The result: No public evidence of Jackson’s place in Glendale. Still, Forest Lawn embraces the kind of Disney-esque spectacle and exaggeration that marked Jackson’s career. Near the top of the Christian cemetery, by a main roadway, is an exact 16-foot-tall replica of
Michelangelo’s David – a gargantuan figure whose muscularity and nakedness are on full display for anyone at Forest Lawn who wanders by in a car or on foot. Inside the cemetery’s museum (yes, it has one) is a rare stone head from Easter Island – a so-called Moai that was taken from the island many years ago. At the time, Westerners got away with stealing such artifacts, but as Forest Lawn notes in a written accompaniment to the smiling head, “The law now prohibits their removal” from Eastern Island.
It’s not the head or the David replica that attracts visitors to Forest Lawn. “Excuse me,” said a woman who rolled down her passenger window as I walked from the David statue. “Do you know where Bette Davis is?” The woman talked as if the actress were still alive – as if Davis were still entertaining select guests who found their way to her Forest Lawn crypt. That’s how it is in Los Angeles. Dead or alive, celebrities are the biggest draw. Shortly after leaving Glendale, I made my way to Venice, where NBA star Dwight Howard happen to be filming a video-game segment with a group of mariachi players. Fans crowded around the action, taking photos with their cell phones and shouting out Howard’s name. A bearded man who appeared drunk and homeless wondered over and tried to grab Howard’s hand. A security guard escorted the visitor away even as other people rushed in to get a close-up of the 7-foot-tall center and his David-like physique. For a few moments, it was pandemonium – until more of Howard’s handlers kept the crowd at bay.
Who knows what Jackson’s rabid fans would do if there were an official spot for their hero at Forest Lawn. With its green rolling hills, semi-secluded location, and stunning vistas of Los Angeles, the cemetery and grounds are an oasis of calm and serenity. As noted on an outside wall by the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn’s founders (back in 1907) envisioned a property where “lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunsets glow . . . a place where artists study and sketch, where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books.” Perhaps Jackson read this saccharine sentiment when he was alive and – inspired by the reference to “happy children”– decided then and there that Forest Lawn was the place for him. Jackson couldn’t have known he’d be dead by age 50. And it’s hard to believe Jackson would have wanted no sign of his life at his final resting place.