Los Angeles' Secret Cemetery of Superstars, Scandals, and Legendary Epitaphs

First-time visitors to Los Angeles expect celebrity sightings at every turn, but in reality, there's only one place where you're positively guaranteed to get close to Hollywood's biggest stars.

The cemetery.

As it happens, Southern California doesn't just turn out some impressive entertainment. The region leads the way in graveyards, too. In L.A., they're unlike any other city's—from Hollywood Forever, where you can picnic among headstones and watch classic outdoor movie screenings with thousands of new friends, to Forest Lawn—Glendale, where you can enjoy a fine art gallery, a replica of da Vinci's The Last Supper done in stained glass, and a painting that's just slightly larger than a soccer field.

But only one of the celebrity cemeteries in Los Angeles delivers more intrigue per plot than any other: Westwood Village Memorial Park.

Pictured above: Burt Lancaster's marker on the central lawn

You'd never expect a green oasis to be found down a bland urban alley like this, but that's just the start of this place's quirks. 

It began as Sunset Cemetery in 1888, long before motion pictures were even invented. Back then, this space served a small, rural population and workers at a small teaching college. But in 1919, that college became the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Westwood Village was developed nearby in the late 1920s. So the name was changed.

Now, high-rise office towers and condos completely conceal these two and a half acres from the bustle of Wilshire Boulevard, a short block north.

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Right over there, in an above-ground mausoleum that was added in the mid-20th century, you'll find the resting place that most people come to see.

Marilyn Monroe, the ill-fated starlet who died in 1962 under mysterious circumstances, can always be found here, three spaces down on the second column of the northern wall.

Her niche's facing has been stained pink from years of lipstick kisses left by adoring mourners.

Her husband Joe DiMaggio bought two crypts when they were married in the mid-1950s: the one she occupies and the one above, for him. When she filed for divorce after nine months of marriage, the baseball great sold his place in the cemetery—but he never surrendered the space for Marilyn in his heart. A devastated DiMaggio reportedly continued to send flowers to her grave for two decades.

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In the midst of his divorce from Marilyn, DiMaggio ran into an entrepreneur named Richard Poncher at the Regency Hotel in New York City—and DiMaggio sold the man his cemetery spot. Decades later, when Poncher died, his last wish was to be flipped over in his casket so that he would always be facing Marilyn. 

"I was standing right there, and [the mortician] turned him over," Poncher's widow later said.

Poor Marilyn—even in death, she can't escape leering men.

A half-century after her demise, the stalking continues. In 1992, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner bought the plot beside for $75,000. Though he never even met her, he was entombed by her side in 2017.

You can permanently invade Marilyn's personal space, too. The crypt adjacent to Marilyn and Hefner was reserved in 1997 by legendary Broadway writer Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!), who eventually decided (like DiMaggio) to be buried closer to family. In the summer of 2021, Herman's family put his plot back on the market for $2 million.

Another resident of Westwood Village Memorial who can't seem to get eternal rest is Natalie Wood. The West Side Story actress drowned off the coast of Catalina Island in 1981, aged just 43. Rumors of mysterious circumstances and even foul play have plagued the case for decades, and every so often, there are new calls to exhume her body for further examination. So far, it hasn't happened.

Wood isn't the only celebrity who arrived at the lawn of Westwood Village under dubious conditions. Just a few feet away from her, you'll find Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, who met an end that was so salacious that there's no call to discuss it here. You'll also find Canadian model Dorothy Stratten, a vibrant young woman who, like Marilyn Monroe, became a tragic victim of men's obsession with her unattainable beauty.

The occupants of the lawn of Westwood Village aren't wholly unsettling. Not far from Wood, beloved entertainment personalities Donna Reed, Eve Arden, Lew AyresBettie Page, and Eva Gabor are buried. Scattered about, you'll also find people who arrived here as long ago as the late 1800s—their gravestones, once vertical, now lie flat to protect them from earthquakes, vandalism, and the ravages of lawn mowers.

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And you'll also spot Don Knotts! You have to love a guy who engraved his best clownish moments from his TV and movie career on his gravestone for our descendants to enjoy, even if he did omit Mr. Furley of Three's Company

While you're in the neighborhood, you really must check out one of California's most prestigious fine arts institutions, the Hammer Museum, which is less than a two-minute walk away, in the Occidental Building. The free gallery was founded by industrialist Armand Hammer to showcase his stupendous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Now under the aegis of UCLA, the gallery has expanded its holdings since Hammer's day.

Hammer was an interesting fellow whose life story—controversial ties to the Soviet Union, illegal donations to Nixon, generous donations to fighting cancer—is perhaps more ripe for scrutiny than any unappetizing text messages by his grandson, actor Armie Hammer. The elder Hammer opened his museum in November 1990 but died two weeks later of cancer. He's entombed practically in the shadow of the Occidental Building, from which he directed his petroleum empire. 

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To the right of the Hammer clan, past crooner Mel Tormé, you'll find a curious mishmash of celebrities grouped on the west-facing wall of the mausoleum. 

Behold megaselling trash novelist Jackie Collins at top right. Then, at the middle left, you'll see professional wag Truman Capote listed with Johnny Carson's second wife, Joanne. They were close friends, and it was in her Bel Air mansion that Capote died, possibly of an overdose, at age 59. His ashes were divided between Capote's partner and Joanne, who placed some of them here and kept a portion (which were once stolen and anonymously returned, but that's another tale). When she died, her portion was put up for auction, where some weirdo bought them for $43,750. Just how much of Capote's remains remain in this niche is a mystery.

At bottom right, there's sweet-faced ghost magnet Carol Ann from the Poltergeist movies, Heather O'Rourke, who died in surgery at age 12. (Her older sister in the first movie, Dominique Dunne, was buried nearby on the lawn at age 22—yes, another victim of an obsessed man.)

Singer and boozehound Dean Martin attracts a fair number of fans (and small offerings) in the Sanctuary of Love portion of the Westwood Village mausoleum. 

His second wife, Jeanne Biegger, is buried a few yards away, on the lawn. Some marriages just work better that way.

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Sketch comedy genius Tim Conway is in the south-facing wall of the mausoleum, opposite Austria-born directing pioneer Josef von Sternberg and around the corner from China-born cinematography pioneer James Wong Howe.

Take time to read the names on these walls and around the lawn. You'll find dozens of people we don't have room to list here but whose work you know, including directors, designers, actors, writers, composers, and people who brought you your favorite soap operas, musicals, scores, and even The Simpsons.

We still don't want to admit it's true, but Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch is here, amid a newer section of brown marble and gurgling fountains.

Another TV supermom, Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts, is in this area, and so are singer Peggy Lee and (in a private garden past a locked gate) comic and Funny Girl inspiration Fanny Brice, who was moved from her original spot at Home of Peace in East Los Angeles in 1999.

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In Westwood Village's columbarium, character actor Jack Klugman is beside Psycho's Janet Leigh, which might seem odd to outsiders but makes sense in Hollywoodland—a lot of these famous people were contemporaries who would have worked with each other, shared agents or studios, or even lived on the same streets. 

What's truly amusing, though, is that Klugman's The Odd Couple character spent five TV seasons suffering an uptight, hypochondriac roommate, Felix Unger, and now Klugman is spending eternity with a pair of Ungers installed just below him. 

The southern end of Westwood Village is a more recent expansion so it's the fanciest zone. In 2018, Los Angeles magazine reported that plots here go for $199,000 and up (wall crypts were a relative bargain at $40,000 as long as they weren't Marilyn-adjacent). This is the area where celebrities with extra cash can buy the space to stretch out: Carroll O'Connor, Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Farrah Fawcett, Peter Falk, and Walter Matthau all occupy the cemetery equivalent of gated mansions here.

A few notables have used their luxe memorials to compete with each other for the wittiest parting line.

Billy Wilder, who wrote what's arguably the best final line of all time for Some Like It Hot, decided to use his epitaph for an encore. It was just that good.

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Wilder's frequent leading man Jack Lemmon is a strong contender for Best Gravestone Inscription by a Movie Star.

Comic Rodney Dangerfield was self-deprecating to the end—and well after it.

A few slabs in this area are well-tended and swaddled by rich plantings, but still remain blank. They could be awaiting yet-to-pass luminaries, or they could be unmarked on purpose—music greats Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa are both residents at Westwood Village, but their places are unmarked.

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Perhaps the winner of the Hollywood tombstone wars, though, is from self-promoting singer/producer/talk show host Merv Griffin, who committed to his ultimate line of gallows humor more completely than anyone less extravagant might try.

But if you can think of a better parting line, there's still space for you to join Hollywood's elite in eternity.

Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park & Mortuary is located at 1218 Glendon Ave. in Los Angeles. It's open daily from 8am to dusk, but be sensitive about your visit, because it's still an active burial ground.

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