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Death in L.A. can be an odd undertaking
You’ve made some bargains. We all have. Maybe you allow yourself a single Tommy’s burger every six months. Maybe you’ve given up meat altogether, or red meat anyway, most of the time. Maybe you’re serious about this and you’ve given up all refined grains and any processed anything; the extra buck a pound to buy organic seems a reasonable sacrifice. You’ve given up booze, cigarettes, pills, cocaine, sex with strangers. You tell yourself you don’t miss them. You wear sunscreen and eat flaxseeds. You go to the gym on breezy Sundays when you’d rather lie around. You go to yoga classes even though the chanting makes you want the world to end. You sold your motorcycle years ago. You cross at the light and look both ways.
No matter how many sacrifices you make to Lady Death, no matter how rich the offerings you lay before her altar, she will know where to find you. When she comes, she will hold you tight, and she will never let you go. Don’t be frightened. She takes us all.
Even here in Los Angeles, in the glow of so much newness, she takes 60,000 of us each year.1 That’s 164 each day. Imagine them all lying side by side, napping forever without a snore. The sun goes down and rises again, and 164 more are sleeping beside them, resting cheeks on shoulders, ears on arms. One day you will join their still parade. Chances are good—about one in four in L.A. County—that death will grab you by the heart. Coronary disease is by far our leading cause of mortality, as it is in the rest of the country. L.A.’s specific inequities, though, travel as deeply through death as they do through life. In this and other ways, death maps life. If you’re an African American or a Latino male and you die before 75, you’re more likely to die of homicide than any other cause. The same goes if you’re of any race or either gender and you live in South L.A. If you’re white or live west of La Cienega and it’s not your ticker that gets you, it will most likely be an overdose, or a car crash, or lung cancer,2 or your own hand—murder is not even in the running.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, you will go. You will not be you anymore. Not exactly. You will be a corpse, a cadaver, a decedent, a “loved one.” You will be remains. The death industry employs more euphemisms than politicians do.3 Someone will find what’s left of you. A child, spouse, or parent. A nurse or passerby. Whoever it is will call for help. At home, at work, or in the street, he or she will dial 911. In a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, someone will call your doctor, who will check one last time for vital signs, declare you dead, and fill out the proper forms. A nurse will remove your clothes and close your eyes. (Not just for modesty’s sake: Rigor mortis hits the eyelids fast.) He or she will tie a tag bearing your name, which you can no longer speak, onto one of your toes, cover you with a plastic shroud, and wheel you to an elevator and thence to the morgue. In most hospitals it is in the basement. You will be rolled from the gurney into a refrigerated drawer. The door will close behind you. It will be dark and cold, but you won’t care.
FOR THE DISMAL TRADE: Autopsy tools to saw,pry, slice, and tweeze the slippery nubs that have stayed hidden all your life
So here you are, dead and alone. Chances are you didn’t want this, but your wishes were ignored. Whatever happens to the part of you that you recognize as somehow quintessentially you (call it soul, self, spirit, spark), the other part isn’t finished yet—the fleshly part, the limbs and guts that ached and pleased you in so many ways, the meaty bits that you vainly or grudgingly dragged around for all those years. That piece is still of interest to the bureaucrats. It is still a potential source of profit. In your absence its journey is just beginning.
The path forks before it. Which way it goes will be determined by the cause of your demise. All the state wants is a death certificate: Think of it as a letter from your doctor excusing you from paying income tax forever. The county, though, wants to know why you died and if there might be a reason to push the cops and the courts and the jails into motion. The coroner holds the key to all that machinery. The key itself is what you once called you. If you have not been under the care of a physician for six months, if you die during surgery or as a result of injuries sustained in an accident or an assault (self-inflicted or otherwise), or if there’s any suspicion that your death might be something other than “natural,” your next stop will be the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner—which is, assistant chief coroner Ed Winter 4 tells me more than once, the busiest such department in the country.
It investigates 18,000 deaths a year, dispatching 36 investigators5 to the far edges of its jurisdiction—from Lancaster to Long Beach and West Covina to Catalina Island, from oil tankers and cruise ships anchored off the coast to jets on the runway at LAX. One of those investigators will come to you. He or she (let’s go with she, because more often these days the investigators are women) will search your pockets for ID. If you are at home, she will nose around for medical records. She will interview relatives, witnesses to your final moments, and the police at the scene. She will photograph and examine you. You’ve seen this part on TV. When she has finished, she and a driver will load you into the rear of a white county van and take you on one last drive down one last freeway, through one last Sig-Alert, off that final off-ramp onto Mission Road. At the corner of Marengo they will pull into a driveway at the side of an elegant old brick building. They will open the back of the van, roll you out, and take you inside, where you will wait quietly in the coroner’s fridge until one of 25 overburdened pathologists is ready to examine you.
Winter, a 61-year-old goateed ex-cop with a cranky sort of charm, squints and counts the day’s cases on his computer monitor. It’s 9:30 in the morning. “Since eight o’clock, I’ve gotten one, two, three, four, five more,” he says. “Got an undetermined, a child. Got an accident, 63-year-old male. Another accident: unknown male Caucasian, 30 to 40, found unresponsive by passerby at a construction site. And an unknown male found floating in the ocean dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Pacific Coast Highway.” He stops reading and looks up. “We’re frigging always busy.”
It’s not just the dead. The telephone rings, and it’s a reporter. He has questions about Brittany Murphy’s husband.6 Winter puts the call on speakerphone and rolls his eyes. When Winter and I first met a few weeks earlier, he pushed a sheet of paper across his desk. It was an inventory of celebrity deaths the coroner’s office had investigated during the previous year. Michael Jackson’s name was listed twice.
In the lobby Winter introduces me to Lieutenant David Smith, a genial, dapper man of 46 with a white handlebar mustache, who supervises the department’s identification and notification division. Right now Smith’s mind is on other things. “Part of the issue I’m dealing with here,” he tells me in the elevator, “is extremely overweight bodies that have to be cremated.” By state law, if nobody picks you up after 30 days, you will be incinerated.7 In bureaucratese this is called “county disposition,” or “county dispo” for short. Smith located a private crematorium willing to kindle his uncollected dead, but it wouldn’t take bodies over 350 pounds. He found a mortuary in Orange County that wanted seven bucks for every pound over 350, but even it topped off at 400 pounds. “I had one the other day who was 710 pounds,” Smith says. The problem seems to have been solved: Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights specializes in the incineration of the truly obese and charges a flat rate of one dollar a pound.
Again, death maps life. County budgets are tight, and more families can’t afford funerals. L.A. County will charge your next of kin $352 to pick up your ashes (cremains, if you prefer), which is about what Forest Lawn wants just to chauffeur you from your deathbed to its oven door. So more families than ever have to settle for the grim anonymity of “county dispo.”
Smith’s main responsibility is to identify you and notify your family that you have died. If the investigator sent out to the scene was unable to make a positive ID, you are for the moment a John or Jane Doe. These categories, Smith says, are further subdivided into “soft Does” and “hard Does.” You are a soft Doe if you were found locked in your own apartment, for instance, and the investigator is pretty sure you are you—but you are too decomposed for anyone to be certain. Your fingers are too far gone to yield prints, but Smith’s people8 should be able to confirm your identity through dental records or X rays. You are a hard Doe if you were discovered in an alley or in the trunk of a car and you didn’t have your wallet and there was no one around who knew that you were you. Then the only real options are fingerprint databases and DNA, and the latter is likely to be on record only if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
Once they’ve pinned a name on you, Smith and two other investigators will start looking for your family. If they turn up an address, they’ll send a letter out. If they find a phone number, they’ll call. “We notified somebody through MySpace one time,” Smith says. The phone calls can be tricky. Some people laugh on hearing the news. Some are apathetic. Some start screaming. “If the phone just drops, we call 911,” Smith says. “We don’t want another case.” Sometimes the next of kin are in denial. “You have to use the power words: ‘They’re dead.’ ”
Your family might demand to come in and see you one last time. This generally means they can’t afford a funeral and want a chance to say good-bye. County rules forbid them from viewing you in the flesh, so the best Smith can do is show them a photo. “I’m good with Photoshop,” he says, “so if the face looks really bad, I’ll try to remove as much blood as possible, take the bullet out of the head. Decomposed bodies I can’t do much with.”
If your family members really miss you, Smith says, they will talk to your photo as if you could hear them. Sometimes they will pet it, as if you could still feel their fingers on your face.
All the King’s Horses
If you become a coroner’s case, you have a decent shot at being eviscerated within a few days of your death: Pathologists employed by the coroner perform about 7,800 autopsies a year, though many of those are partial autopsies, in which the examiner inspects only the specific organs that catch his or her interest. In the 1960s, autopsies were performed on more than half the patients who exited the hospital through the morgue. That number has since fallen to less than 10 percent. Insurance companies loathe spending money on the living and are even stingier with the dead. This has opened up a market niche large enough for Vidal Herrera to park his Hummer in. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s white and emblazoned on both sides with the name of his company: 1-800-AUTOPSY.
Herrera is 58 and stocky, with a trim white beard and a round, lively face. The guys in the neighborhood call him “Muerto.” Today, standing in the courtyard of his Valley Boulevard compound in El Sereno, he is wearing a T-shirt that says What happens in the morgue stays in the morgue. In addition to performing complete autopsies for $3,000 a pop and harvesting and transporting donated organs, Herrera rents mortuary equipment to the studios for film and TV shoots and has a side business producing custom “coffin couches”—cut-down caskets transformed into sofas. He shows me one in silver and black with a Raiders logo embroidered on a cushion.
Despite his nickname, Herrera’s vivacity is uncontainable. He takes me to his office and tells me about his years with the coroner’s department, where he worked as a morgue attendant, a photographer, an autopsy assistant, and finally for five years as an investigator. He talks about a woman in Compton eaten by her cats, about the time he retrieved a “floater” from a drainage canal in Lomita and his clothes filled with maggots, and about his last day on the job in 1984, when he ruptured three disks in his spine trying to lift an obese pastry chef who had shot herself. “She reminded me of a gorilla,” he says, and recounts his subsequent struggles with depression and the revelation that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Until a psychiatrist told him otherwise, he says, he had thought that his recurring nightmares of mutilated corpses were normal. On one wall of his office, among Halloween props and Grateful Dead posters, is a framed caricature of Herrera grinning in black surgical scrubs. A speech bubble above his head reads “A chance to slash is a chance for cash.”
If your survivors have suspicions about the cause of your death and can afford to put their minds at ease, they can call Herrera or one of his eager competitors. If they do, you will end up like the 60-year-old woman now lying naked on Herrera’s stainless-steel autopsy table. She is short and overweight and hasn’t breathed in five days. Her arms and lower legs are tanned a yellowish brown, but her belly, breasts, and thighs are a startling white because all of her blood has drained to her back. Her toenails are still crimson with polish. Herrera dons blue latex gloves and a long, black rubber butcher’s apron for the occasion, but he’s there only to watch. His autopsy assistant, Sean Sadler, will do the honors, along with a pathologist who asks me not to use his name. I will call him Dr. Gray.
Sadler begins with a Y-incision. Using a scalpel, he slices down from each shoulder to the sternum and from there to just above the black snare of hair beneath her navel. The patient does not flinch, not even when Sadler peels back the skin of her chest with a retractor, causing her breasts to loll on her biceps. He cuts through her ribs with pruning shears, pausing to observe the softness of her bones—osteoporosis, he suggests—and the fractures left by whoever had attempted CPR. He trims away the heavy yellow fat around her heart, slices through the arteries and veins, and hands the once vital organ to Dr. Gray, who weighs and dissects it on a plastic cutting board. The lungs come out next. Sadler works the scalpel under the patient’s chin to loosen the organs of her neck: the thyroid and parathyroid glands, the esophagus and trachea. He goes organ by organ, handing each to Dr. Gray, who slices and studies them, then drops a sliver of each into a jar of diluted formaldehyde. He traps another sliver in a plastic cassette for the toxicologist and tosses what is left into the “gut bucket”—a small, wheeled trash can at his feet.
CLOSE YOUR EYES: With a kit (opposite) he keeps locked in his Lincoln, Kenneth Schenk will make you look almost alive
In the end, when her torso has been reduced to what is called a “canoe,” and her skullcap rocks on the table beside her right shoulder, and a single drop of blood-brown water hangs like a tear beneath her eye, Dr. Gray decides it was her heart that killed her, although she also had pneumonia and a terrible back injury—four inches of spine swollen and saturated with blood—that must have kept her in constant and excruciating pain. He shows me her butterflied heart. The two halves of her mitral valve don’t quite match, which means more to him than it does to me.
If it were you instead of her, you would not recognize yourself. The yellowy red mess inside of you would seem to have little to do with even your most intimate understanding of yourself. You would be startled by the pleasant purplish hue of your liver, the graceful drape of your small intestines, the stubborn white ball of your skull. The smells you release would surprise you, as would the awful groaning crack your spine makes when Sadler pries the vertebrae apart to get at the tender cord. But since the worst indignity—your death—has already occurred, do you think you’d really mind?
A Happy Life
If your death is sufficiently unremarkable that the coroner has no designs on your remains, you will likely avoid the invasive curiosity of the county and go straight to the funeral parlor that will handle what are politely called “the arrangements.” If the funeral director has the staff on hand, he will send a man with a van to fetch you, but chances are good that he will subcontract the task to someone like Angelo Patrick.
Patrick runs Patco Transportation Services. When I meet him at a Denny’s in Hollywood, he is wearing a black suit and tie and a flawlessly white shirt with two golden pens protruding from the pocket. There is a somber intensity to him that is barely disguised by the softness of his voice or the formality of his speech and bearing. Patrick grew up in South Carolina and earned a degree in biology, but in 1971, there were not many jobs in the sciences for a black man in the South. Two years later he moved to L.A. and enrolled in mortuary school.
In the decades since Patrick graduated, the “death care” business, once known as the “dismal trade,” has changed sharply. Beginning in the late 1980s, the industry underwent a massive consolidation. Racing to corner the market before baby boomers started dying off, a few giant firms—the largest of them being Houston-based Services Corporation International—began buying up hundreds of independent mortuaries and cemeteries. Usually the conglomerate kept the individual locations’ original names but combined their operations—and jacked up prices.9 The traditionally American send-off—a viewing at the funeral home, followed by services at the church and a motorcade to the cemetery—gave way to the corporate all-in-one. The big cemeteries now have mortuaries, chapels, and even florists on-site, which cuts out the old side industries. So-called first-call services like Patco are among the few subsidiary contractors that have survived the shift.
Technically, Patrick’s job is fairly simple. The mortuary calls him and tells him where you are. He drives to the address, knocks on the door, rolls you into a sheet, ties off the ends, hoists you onto a gurney, wheels you to the van, drops you at the mortuary, and waits for his next call. “There’s never any funny stuff,” he says. “The dead, they don’t say anything.”
His work, however, does have its complications. First, there is “decomp.” Patrick can tell it will be an issue before he even parks, when he sees the police officers standing at the far end of the sidewalk smoking cigars to cover the smell. Aside from the odors, there are fluids to deal with and parts of you that stain his clothes. Stairs can be a problem. You don’t get any lighter when you die. If you’re a pack rat or a hoarder, you will make Patrick’s task still more difficult. You might have too much junk around for him to wheel you out, which means he’ll have to carry you. Sometimes he can’t find the dead for all the trash that crowds their homes.
Then there are the living. Patrick remembers one large tattooed fellow who did not want to part with his mother’s remains. “He had just come out of prison. He didn’t want Mom to be dead yet. It took six guys, his uncles, to hold him down on the floor while I took the body and ran—literally ran.” Another man threatened Patrick with a hammer after Patrick had covered his wife’s face. “She’s going to suffocate,” the man said. Patrick uncovered it.
“You get them in the bathtub, on the toilet, in the bed, in the backyard. Everywhere people go, we pick them up,” says Patrick, leaning over his eggs and grits, which he does not touch. “From the littlest person to the most important person. Musicians, Indian chiefs, whoever. I pick them up.”
Patrick was raised a Baptist. When he was 12, he watched his father die of a heart attack and found he could no longer believe in the God who had taken his father from him. He married an observant Jehovah’s Witness and became one, too. Religion, he says, “offered the possibility that I might one day see my father again.” His work has eroded that faith. Patrick is 60 now and no longer married, and he doesn’t bother himself with God. “When people die, I don’t know where they go, just like I don’t know where we come from,” he says. “I see a lady die at 115. I see babies die at three months—I can hold the baby in my hand. I see kids die at 3, 4 years old. I see teenagers, rich people, poor people, white people, black people. Everybody dies.”
The only ones that disturb him, he says, are the lonely ones, the ones he finds decomposing in their living rooms, surrounded by empty bottles with the television still on. He remembers a woman he found lying on her kitchen floor. She had been there for two weeks even though her daughter lived just four doors down.10
Patrick smiles a tight, sad smile. “It’s like the Epicurean philosophers say, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ There’s a lot of truth to that. How much of your life are you willing to be unhappy? How much of your life are you willing to give up? What is a happy life?”
Los Angeles holds a special place in the history of death. Until relatively recently, Europeans “were as familiar with the dead as they were familiarized with the idea of their own death,” writes the French historian Philippe Ariès. They painted decomposing cadavers in manuscripts and carved them on church walls. Starting in the high Middle Ages, though, Ariès argues, Western attitudes began to change: “Death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced…would become shameful and forbidden.” By the middle of the 20th century, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer was writing about “the pornography of death,” observing that “natural processes of corruption and decay have become disgusting”—just as sex had been rendered obscene by the Victorians. The dead had become an affront to the living.11
Neither Gorer nor Ariès knew quite what to make of the United States, which in many ways followed the general Western trend, banishing decay from polite conversation. At the same time, Americans ritualize death in a manner extraordinary to Europeans. Until a few years ago, even a basic working-class American funeral—from the open-casket display of the chemically preserved and cosmetically improved decedent to the long, slow procession of cars to the graveside—matched a level of pomp reserved across the Atlantic only for the most celebrated dead.
Southern California, home to the theme-park necropolis Forest Lawn, came to represent the apotheosis of America’s disturbingly “euphoric” approach to mortality, to borrow Ariès’s term. Angelenos not only failed to tastefully ignore death, they did everything they could to render it sunny, cheerful, lifelike. To Evelyn Waugh, who parodied Forest Lawn in his 1948 novel The Loved One, such vulgarity was symptomatic of the “endless infancy” of West Coast culture. To the journalist Jessica Mitford, the “American way of death” was a crude product of capitalist manipulation: We had elaborate funerals because the funeral industry was able to charge us more for them; Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.
No aspect of American funereal ritual has been more consistently alarming to foreign observers than embalming, which is practiced nowhere else in the world with the near universality that it achieved in North America. Mitford characterized embalming as expensive quackery, a recently revived pagan practice without roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The funeral industry’s insistence on its hygienic necessity, she argued, lacked any scientific or medical foundation. Waugh was better humored about the practice, if no less horrified at the notion of being, as he put it, “pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore, / Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost or gone before.”
To Kenneth Schenk, however, embalming is an art, perhaps soon to be lost. Schenk could not be more different from Mr. Joyboy, Waugh’s priggish, pink-eyed chief embalmer. “Through the whole sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll era I was known as the rebel embalmer,” he says with more than a hint of pride. Schenk is a trade embalmer, which means he freelances for the few remaining independent mortuaries. He is 70, and his hair stops well short of his collar, but back before it turned its current lustrous white, he wore it to the middle of his back. He came to L.A. from Florida in 1960 and did his apprenticeship with the legendary Jack Lowry, who famously embalmed Jean Harlow and who, Schenk says, “mixed his own fluids at Pierce Bros. down in the basement.”
In those days L.A. still had a “Mortuary Row”—a string of grand funeral homes with high-ceilinged lobbies and marble staircases stretching along Washington Boulevard. Sitting in a booth at the Pantry downtown, Schenk waxes nostalgic about that now invisible geography, long since sliced in half by the Harbor Freeway and transformed into a jumble of repair shops and warehouses. Spearing a bite of coleslaw with Russian dressing, he tells me exactly what he will do to you if you fall into his able, practiced hands.
You will be there waiting for him when he arrives in the mortuary’s prep room.12 He will put on a paper gown and latex gloves. He will wash you and position your limbs. He’ll insert small, nubbed plastic disks beneath your eyelids to make sure that they stay shut. He will suture your lips closed, and if they don’t stay shut, he will Superglue them.
When he’s ready, Schenk will select his fluids, taking into account the time that has passed since your death (the longer it has been, the stronger the chemicals), the cause of your death (some medications interact poorly with embalming fluid), and the color of your skin (“Formaldehyde,” he says, “will turn a white person a nice shade of green”). He will choose a spot for his incision, usually the carotid or femoral artery. He will lift the artery with a steel hook and insert a plastic injection tube attached to an embalming machine. Another tube will go into the corresponding vein. Schenk will turn on the machine, adjusting for pressure and flow, and it will pump preservative fluid in through your arteries, pushing your blood out through your veins, into the sink, and down the drain.
The process lasts about an hour, depending on your size and the condition of your circulatory system.13 Then Schenk will poke a pointed, hollow instrument called a trocar through your abdominal wall. It will act as a sort of siphon, sucking gases and liquids from your intestines, stomach, bladder, heart, and lungs. “It’s not for the weak of heart,” Schenk says. Once you’ve been sufficiently cleaned out, he will inject more embalming fluid directly into your organs.
If you’ve been autopsied, all this will take a little longer and cost a little more. “Basically the arterial system is gone,” Schenk says, so he will have to inject fluid directly into each of your limbs and both sides of your brain. Then he will sew you up “nice and tight.” All that’s left is makeup, hairstyling, perhaps a touch of the “restorative arts” if disease or injuries have damaged your features. An eyelid, a nose, even an ear can be sculpted out of beeswax.
Not long ago Schenk got a call from a mortuary offering him a job everyone else had refused. “It was a gal that had been murdered and put in the trunk of a car and not found for 12 days, and it was the heat of the summer.” Schenk demurred, but the funeral director persisted. “Miracles can be done,” Schenk says. “We preserved this gal and made her viewable. The family was almost ecstatic.”
Once, he says, “during the hippie era,” he embalmed a fallen rock climber whose long hair, matted with blood, had been shaved and stuffed into a bag. Schenk washed out the blood and painstakingly laid the hair out to dry. One at a time, he matched the strands by length, texture, and curl and, as patient as his silent client, reconstructed the climber’s coiffure. “It takes a guy that has an artist’s eye,” says Schenk, beaming. “Not everyone can do it.”
Maybe you’re not fond of worms or maybe you’re claustrophobic. Perhaps you’ve read Jim Crace’s novel Being Dead, which lovingly chronicles the decomposition of a murdered couple, or the chapter in Mary Roach’s Stiff about the stages of decay, from elementary autolysis to full-blown putrefaction (when you become “soup”). Maybe your imagination suffices to make you prefer quick, purifying flame. Or perhaps you’d just rather be portable: No one stays put for long these days, and urns pack more easily than caskets. Maybe you’re Buddhist and believe the flames will help you cast aside the now useless shell of this life so that you can move unencumbered to the next. Or perhaps the thought of being scattered to the breeze feels more like freedom than any other image of eternal rest you can conjure.
Whatever your reasons, you wouldn’t be alone. According to a funeral industry data tracker, inaptly named Vital Statistic Analyses, more than half of Californians were cremated in 2009. In Greater Los Angeles cremations have gone up 40 percent over the past five years. The trend is recent: In 1970, fewer than 5 percent of Americans met that final flame.14 Philippe Ariès calls incineration “a manifestation of enlightenment, of modernity” and suggests that, as “the most radical means of getting rid of the body and of forgetting it, of nullifying it,” cremation is the method best suited to the abstraction and uprootedness of modern life.
It is also a lot cheaper. A bare-bones cremation at downtown’s Armstrong Family Malloy-Mitten mortuary will set your survivors back $665, less than a third of the cost of the lowest-end burial plot at Forest Lawn (not counting casket, vault, memorial plaque, embalming fees, burial charges, and carnation boutonnieres). If you’re not afraid of fire and you choose to go that way—or someone chooses for you—your mortuary will likely dispatch you to a crematorium. Few mortuaries cremate their own, and few crematoriums deal directly with consumers. An employee of a transport service like Angelo Patrick’s will drop you off at the crematory door, fill out the requisite paperwork, and depart confident that you will be much easier to carry when he returns to pick you up. Specifically, you will fit in a five-by-seven-by-ten-inch box, and you will weigh between three and ten pounds. “I call that radical weight reduction,” says Aida Bobadilla, who manages Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights, the same Odd Fellows that David Smith at the coroner’s office contracts with for the fiery disposal of the morbidly obese.
The process is simple. “It’s very much like you’re cooking,” Bobadilla says. A pale, slender woman with dark eyes and a sudden, flashing laugh, she is 63 but easily could pass for 50. Sitting on the couch in the lobby, she looks me up and down. “You, three hours,” she says. “Me, three hours.” Heavier folks take longer. Lieutenant Smith’s 710-pounder took six hours. They are also more complicated to burn. Fat produces a great deal of heat,15 which means that someone has to be there standing by to regulate the chamber’s temperature.
State law requires that you be combusted in a container, which might be a cardboard box or a hand-buffed walnut casket with mattress springs and quilted velvet lining. Once it has burned away, you will, too. “We direct the flame toward the torso,” Bobadilla says, “and the flames feather out to the extremities.” If for any reason you roll to one side or otherwise attempt to flee the flames, a technician may open the door to the retort, as the cremation chamber is called, and nudge you into place with a pole. The retort will rise to 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to turn most of you to vapor. “The skin melts, the skin bubbles, and then it’s gone.”
And the smell? I ask Bobadilla if her neighbors complain about the scent of singed hair and roasting meat. She assures me that the temperature is too high for anyone to notice anything. At most, “you may smell like paper burning,” she says, and that’s probably just the casket going up. Cremation chambers are designed to capture any unseemly emissions. The only way to tell that someone’s cooking, she says, is to search the sky above the smokestacks for wavy lines of heat.
When all of you has burned that can be burned, the technician will turn off the gas and rake out what little is left: charred and brittle fragments of bone—sometimes a femur or a piece of skull will be recognizable. He or she will collect these shards of you in a metal pan, allow them to cool, then pass a magnet over them to catch any metal intermingled with you: eyeglass frames, fillings, buttons, zippers, the cotter pins, springs, and hinges from your casket.16 Bobadilla once found a gold fingernail.
You are at this point officially cremains. In a large industrial blender you will be processed into powder. Your relatives will not want to find chunks. You will then be poured into a gusseted plastic pouch, which will be sealed and placed inside a “temporary plastic urn”—i.e., a box—wrapped in brown paper, and meticulously labeled inside and out. The mortuary will send someone to get you, and you, more portable than ever, will have a lot of options.
You can stay in your plastic urn and go straight to the back of the closet. You can express your personality until the end of time in an urn shaped like a golf bag, or an angel, or a duck. You can doze in a locket on a loved one’s neck. You can rest eternally in the Buddhist Columbarium atop the highest peak in Rose Hills Cemetery, commanding a view (if only you still had eyes!) of the entire L.A. basin, from Catalina to Mount Baldy and beyond. You can be scattered at sea to commune with the fish. You can be packed in fireworks and rocketed into the heavens. But you cannot be scattered on the infield at Dodger Stadium, or the outfield, or anywhere in Disneyland at all—do not even ask.
Odd Fellows is also a cemetery, so Bobadilla walks me outside to show me the Civil War graves and tell me about the ghosts—not just the ones that she sometimes spots flitting around the office but the one she’s only heard about: the Phantom Lowrider. People arriving for funerals have told her they’ve seen it in their rearview mirrors. Some say it’s white, others black. No one can describe the driver’s face. When they turn to look, Bobadilla says, “there’s nothing there.”
I walk around and don’t see any ghosts. There’s a funeral going on to my right, a family gathered around a grave. They’ve hired mariachis. Right now they’re singing “Amor Eterno,” and the tune is so perfectly sad that the air above the graveyard seems to expand a little. I circle past the mourners and back to the gates until I see it—a low chimney of beige brick just behind the lobby where Bobadilla and I had been sitting. She was right. There is no smoke, but the palm trees and the eucalyptus on the far side of the smokestack are shivering and slipping, as if the sky itself has lost all confidence and allowed the atmosphere to sag.
The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For
Then there are the holes. If you feel sometimes that the surface streets are just that, surface, that the concrete and asphalt crust of the city is hiding something big beneath our feet, you are right. In 2003, construction workers digging a drainage canal for the Playa Vista condo complex unearthed the bones of 396 Gabrieliño-Tongva Indians at the edge of the Ballona wetlands. The site is now a soccer field. Two years later on the other side of town, crews working on the Eastside extension of the Metro Gold Line found the remains of 174 people, most of them Chinese laborers, just south of Evergreen Cemetery. Some of the graves dated to the 1880s. At that time, and for decades to come, Chinese could not be buried alongside white Angelenos and were consigned to a potter’s field outside the cemetery grounds. They have since been moved into the cemetery proper and rest on the other side of a low chain-link fence from the current potter’s field.
If no one else will, you can count on the county to put you in a hole. Once officials have given up finding someone to take you off their hands, you will be cremated, says Estella Inouye of the county’s Decedent Affairs Division. You will be stored for three years and then buried, along with everyone else who died that year, in a mass grave behind the county crematorium. This December, Inouye expects to inter the unclaimed remnants of at least 1,700 people who died in 2007. It will be crowded down there, but everyone will have at least a little privacy: The ashes stay in their urns. “I don’t have the staff to be scattering,” Inouye says.
If you are lucky, you will be neither so poor nor so alone in death that you will end up in the county’s care, which means that you might find a plot on the other side of the fence at Evergreen, beneath the brown grass with the dead elite of yesteryear: the Lankershims and the Van Nuyses, the Rimpaus, Hollenbecks, and Breeds. It is peaceful there. Birds glide from tree to tree. Families sit in the shade on folding chairs, sharing a meal six feet above someone dear. Traffic is a distant oceanic hum.
Cemeteries are quieter and most of them are greener than the cities of the living that surround them, but these cities of the dead are not so different otherwise. They are, for instance, just as segregated. At Evergreen you’ll find an outlying Armenian neighborhood, sprawling Mexican sections (someone has spelled out the words “te amo” in small stones at the foot of a new grave), an inner circle of shiny headstones engraved in Japanese, and an early stratum of dead whites with streets named after them.
Evergreen is unusual in that it never banned the burial of African Americans. The same cannot be said of the original Forest Lawn in Glendale, where the giant wrought-iron gates for decades refused entrance to blacks, Jews, and Chinese—even after they had been reduced to permanent passivity. Today all paying guests are welcome. At Forest Lawn, though, the apparent democracy imposed by the lack of headstones—everyone gets the same bronze marker flush with the grass, which makes mowing that much easier—hides a rigid real estate hierarchy that reflects L.A.’s own, from lumpen, lowland subdivisions to gated hilltop mansions. Anyone can stroll through the Courts of Remembrance or the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather (satirized by Waugh as the “Wee Kirk o’Auld Lang Syne”) or meditate beneath the stained-glass replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but if you want to visit the elect who rest in the Garden of Honor,17 a sign on the locked gate says you will need a “golden key of memory, given to each [plot] owner at time of purchase.” Jim Wilke, park vice president of Glendale Forest Lawn, will not tell me how much such a plot might cost, except that it reaches “into the six figures.”
It was not Forest Lawn’s ill-concealed class structure that Waugh and Mitford found so distasteful but the cemetery’s brash modernity and autocratic cheer.18 Forest Lawn was designed to be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness,” declared founder Hubert Eaton (“The Builder”) in his “Builder’s Creed,” which begins with his assertion that “I believe in a happy eternal life” and goes on to banish every symbol of judgment or even grief from its architecture.
The mantle of necrological innovation, however, has been passed. When Tyler Cassity bought Hollywood Forever cemetery in 1998, one of the goals, says longtime friend and executive vice president Jay Boileau, “was to revolutionize memorialization.” Technology, Boileau and Cassity believed, could transform funeral practices that hadn’t changed significantly in millennia. Ultimately they hoped to do away with the material side of death, preserving just a shred of DNA and a digitally archived memorial to the departed: uploaded interviews, documents, photos, music. “We pretty quickly realized that rituals have meaning to people,” says the 40-year-old Boileau, who with his shaggy hair, jeans, and untucked shirt looks more like a graphic designer than a cemetery executive. “People want to come to the cemetery, they want a headstone, they want to have a funeral.”
Boileau now keeps busy curating Hollywood Forever’s cultural programs, bringing concerts and screenings to the mausoleum lawns, letting the living party where the esteemed dead—Cecil B. De Mille, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Dee Dee Ramone—sleep. His ambitions, though, have not shrunk. When I ask what he wants done with his own remains, Boileau hesitates, then answers that he has hoped for a while to establish an ossuary at Hollywood Forever. “I’ve offered my skull to adorn the door,” he says. “Why not, right?”
Cassity, in the meantime, has been pushing innovation in a different direction, toward “green burial”—no embalming, no casket, no headstone, native grasses instead of fertilized fields of sod. In 2004, he bought Fernwood Cemetery in Marin County as a pastoral, live-oak-and-eucalyptus yin to Hollywood Forever’s glamorous urban yang. The trend is spreading. Joshua Tree Memorial Park, the only cemetery offering green burial in Southern California, boasts hand-dug graves. So far it has only done two green burials—one in a wicker coffin, the other in a shroud.
Chances are that you will spend eternity in something more substantial, a repository somewhere between a $195 fiberboard #1650 Alternative Container and the $25,000 polished bronze Promethean.19 Chances are also good that your burial will be more corporate and industrial than breezily bucolic. Dave Worker takes me through the routine at Whittier’s Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary, the largest cemetery in North America and possibly the world, where he is the park superintendent. “We average 30 a day, six days a week,” Worker says. Much of his job is logistical: dispatching crews and plotting traffic, making sure that processions do not collide, that tractors don’t block the lanes for hearses. Wearing black jeans and a striped shirt, his gray hair slicked neatly back, Worker, who is 46, looks more casual-Friday than Quasimodo-Gothic. He sends his grave diggers to Dale Carnegie seminars to sharpen their communication skills.
Two days before your funeral one of Worker’s workers will locate your plot and paint a perfect 40-by-96-inch rectangle around your hole-to-be. Another will come by later with a sod-peeling machine and roll the rectangle of grass into three tidy cylinders. Next comes the dig team. No unnecessary back pain here: Worker’s crew will use a backhoe to scoop out six and a half feet of earth. It won’t take more than 20 minutes. On the day of the event a setup crew will install a “vault-lowering device,” into which they will place the bottom half of your vault.20 They will then cloak the border of the hole with artificial turf, unfold a few chairs, and erect a canopy to shelter your guests from sun or rain.
Now it’s your cue, the moment you’ve been waiting for. You make your entrance. Your pallbearers roll your casket from the hearse and shoulder you up and over to the grave. They set you down in the vault so that your casket creates “a sort of visual focal piece” for the ceremony, as Worker puts it. Somebody says something. Somebody cries. Probably they pray. You can’t hear anything. Your lid is closed, and you’re dead. Somebody turns a crank and lowers you slowly into the ground. Somebody removes the straps and the lowering device. The show is over. Your mourners embrace. They exchange tissues and comforting words. They leave you there in your box at the bottom of your hole.
Don’t despair. Worker’s crew has not forgotten you. With a special dolly they lower the lid of the vault over your casket. They seal you in with tape. The backhoe returns. Somebody shovels the dirt on top of you while someone else tamps it down around the edges of the vault. They roll out the sod. They water it. They collect the flowers, the canopy, the chairs. They work steadily. They have other graves to dig and other graves to fill. They leave you there. You’re done.
Ben Ehrenreich is a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine. His article about a transgender immigrant who died in a Terminal Island detention center appeared in the September 2008 issue.
This feature won the 2011 National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for feature writing. To see other award-winning stories from the pages of Los Angeles magazine, click here.
Photograph by Frank Ockenfel