On a recent day in September, a party ensued on a gravesite at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A man with flowing blonde hair sat on a full-size granite sofa adorned with eight bronze dachshunds. Next to him, a friend with closely cropped gray hair, a candle-lit cupcake in hand, sang happy birthday as several plump wiener dogs sprawled in the grass at their feet.
Passersby might have assumed it was a birthday ritual for a departed friend or relative. In reality, the grave’s future occupant, Mike Szymanski, was sitting atop it, celebrating the start of his 61st year.
How Szymanski, a long-time journalist in L.A. who’s covered everything from entertainment news to LAUSD for a variety of outlets, came to mark his special day in such an unlikely way is due in part to COVID-19. Szymanski managed to avert contracting the virus, but his 20-year relationship didn’t survive lockdown. It imploded around his birthday last year—the big 6-0—which he’d intended to celebrate with a $30,000, ‘60s-themed party complete with go-go dancers and a light show. When the virus quashed his plans, he spent the day alone and brokenhearted in Yosemite instead.
There are two things to know about Szymanski. One, he loves dachshunds. He’s had seven in his lifetime, including the three he owns now, and each one is represented in bronze on the gravestone. He also loves cemeteries, particularly Hollywood Forever. Several years ago Szymanski bought burial plots overlooking the pond in the Garden of Legends for his partner and himself. With his partner out of the picture, Szymanski contemplated selling the plots, but then something shifted in him, and he decided instead to create a monument that he could enjoy now.
“I felt like this was a way of turning something positive out of a really negative year,” he said.
Szymanski took out a second mortgage on his Hollywood home, which was nearly paid off, combined the proceeds with the money he’d saved for the canceled party, selected the granite from Armenia, and commissioned the bronze sculptures from China. One day last June, he unveiled the $100,000-plus monument that has become known as the Doxie Tombstone among cemetery regulars, many of whom pay homage by leaving dog toys and other trinkets behind.
Central to the gravestone’s design is the thing Szymanski wants to be remembered for.
“I always knew that I was good at throwing parties and introducing people to other people that created synchronicity,” he said. “And I thought, how do I create a tombstone that still brings people together? I thought, why not create a tombstone that is modeled after the couch that I have at home? And what did we always have when we sat on our couch? Our dogs were always on our laps or draped across the back, just like they are here,” he said.
As Szymanski’s 61st birthday celebration progressed, more friends dropped by and gathered around his stone sofa to exchange well wishes. At the center of it all, Szymanski lounged on the monument as casually as if he were at home, a beatific expression on his face. Visible on the sofa back beside him was his epitaph: “Still bringing people together.”