Death & Celebrity • 25 October 2009

On Sunday I went back to Pierce Brothers, to watch the tourists take pictures of the graves. A young woman on a mission arrived in a yellow airport taxi, tumbled out and careened toward the crypt of Marilyn Monroe. She placed her palm on the marble wall as the rest of her collapsed inside her old sweatsuit. The driver stayed in the cab, studying his nails. A father and his slacker-looking teenage son enjoyed a probably rare game of bonding, looking for treasure among the headstones. Look, over here! It’s Dean Martin! Hey! Check out the subtitle for Rodney Dangerfield! A couple whose bodies resembled puffy white wonderbread loaves trudged through grave by grave, systematically, sweating in matching Wisconsin Tshirts.

You think I’m making this stuff up. Well, it’s only like this on weekends. The place is so tiny that, sitting beneath the ponderosa pine tree up in the northwest corner, I see visitors’ weird celebrity obsessions play out like the cemetery’s their stage.

Secret Cemetery


Other days, it’s an electric green postage stamp, hidden between highrises just southeast of the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood. I go because it is secret, and greener than green, and because cemeteries are a calming thrill.

Graves connect to this excitement for Halloween and all November, and the enduring child-terror of apocalypses. The 2012 billboards got plastered all over town this week, scaring the shit out of me and chasing me in to the peace of Pierce brothers several afternoons. Cemeteries are the apocalypse hiding place: if we get all the way through the game before the mean old end-of-the-world God decides to trash the place, then we are safe. Good humans: here is your prize. A cool, smooth slab of marble and relatively quiet neighbors.

Pierce Brothers is nearly impossible to find, even if you know where to look, because the passageways behind the highrises all seem to lead into parking structures. But there’s one, guarded by a man in blue, that goes straight behind a brick wall and opens up in to this unimagined garden. I can almost hear the bionic hedge growing up over the entrace once I’m inside.

But Sundays, in the blazing sunlight, with the visitors who have managed to find their way in… it’s the wrong kind of creepy. Sitting under the tree, I’m usually pondering not the void of death but them: what the sounds and movements they make can tell me about this phenomenon of celebrity.

I often want to ask what it means that yoga has come to the west and been embedded, and propagated, inside this logic of ultra-notoriety and extreme reputation. I don’t know. Watching the woman who flew in to weep at Norma Jean, the father and son who experience a name on marble as a treasure. What is the self-mortifying magnetism of this stuff?

It’s the same as the good old love of power and leaders, the logic of high school popularity and every other social machination, the fascination with fascination… but it’s also not. There’s a piece I don’t get. It helps to run in to Arnold Schwarzenegger or his orange Mustang at the Pan Quotidien beneath the shala a couple of days a week: he’s my innoculator. Fascination: TERMINATED. (But wait… is that still fascinating? Shit!)

So it’s more puzzling all the time, but one thing is clear: it’s all intensely morbid. I’m sure there are a million cultural studies essays on the essential sameness of celebrity and morbidity: about how James Dean and Marilyn and Diana, in their enduring moments of conflagration, are the apotheosis of fame. A fortiori, doesn’t it seem that, if you theorized that psyche had structure, then fame and death would have to occupy adjacent cells?

I don’t know. The more I watch the celebrity machine, the emptier and more mystifying and stupider it gets. The only thing I do think I know is that knowledge of death generates the best of insight and energy, and celebrity steals them straight away. I wish I could know what yoga would be with more reverence for death and less for renown.