09.01.09 12:14 AM ET
There are fewer places more beautiful than Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. It’s a park-like 300 acres of rolling hills, massive trees, majestic marble statuary and soothing water features. Hubert Eaton, a devout Christian, took over an existing graveyard in the early 1900s, and designed it to mark a new and glorious beginning, rather than the end of something.
Michael Jackson will lie in repose over no fewer than 13 subterranean floors, each holding intriguing secrets. As one cemetery insider told me, ”It’s sort of the opposite of the stairway to heaven.”
But this otherwise majestic place sits atop some dark secrets, ones that, as of this Thursday, Michael Joseph Jackson will rest upon as well. I was able to glimpse an advance peek at the King of Pop’s eternal throne, and the reality is stranger than his Thriller video, sitting atop more than a dozen floors of secret subterranean burial sections housing the remains of ancient devil worshippers and Gypsies, sacrificial fonts and crypts decorated with pentagrams and a secreted area with shelves housing at least a thousand abandoned urns containing the ashes of souls no one claimed.
My recent behind-the-scenes tour of the cemetery was conducted by a man who had worked there for several years in a job that had him into the bowels of every single building, the entire breadth of the grounds, and he knew the place like the back of his hand.
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“There’s Spencer Tracy’s plot -- and over here Errol Flynn’s,” says my guide, pointing to the appropriate places. After rounding a corner of one elaborate building, he motioned toward an out-of-the-way flower bed, pulled back a low hanging palm frond and said, “Hardly anyone has ever seen this.” He pointed to a plaque which read: Walter Elias Disney. Engraved underneath: “Ashes scattered in paradise.” Resting below, at the foot of a Little Mermaid statue, was a small stuffed Mickey Mouse.
Inside the mammoth Freedom Mausoleum, my guide points to a low marble bench and then up to the wall where a side-by-side crypt held the remains of Gracie Allen (1902-1964) and George Burns (1896-1996). He explains that every Tuesday for decades, Burns would sit on that bench and visit with his departed soulmate. The simple legend on their crypt reads: “Together Again.” Nat King Cole’s crypt is above and to the right.
Downstairs in this particular building, down into more marble walls holding the remains of members of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, Alan Ladd, Dorothy Dandridge, Clara Bow and many others, my chest tightens. It was like breathing in a heavy dose of musty mold - a rotting suffocating smell that forces staffers to leave open opposing doors so the breeze can carry at least some of the smell away. This smell of death cropped up randomly, in various buildings, throughout our excursion.
The talk of workers on the property today is of exactly where Michael Jackson will spend eternity after his final family memorial service, scheduled for Thursday at Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum, inside the elaborate Memorial Court of Honor. In that hall Jackson’s casket is scheduled to be staged under a stunning stained glass rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s "Last Supper" masterpiece. It occupies one entire wall.
This location likely would have met with Michael’s approval. He once commissioned his own special Last Supper painting and for years it hung directly over his bed at Neverland Ranch. In Jackson’s version he occupies the center space where Jesus is usually seen and instead of the disciples there are some of Jackson’s heroes painted in, among them Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
After the hoopla surrounding Jackson’s death dies down, maybe in a year or more, cemetery workers speculate that Jackson will be permanently buried in the uber-expensive “Golden Key” section of Forest Lawn, which is outlined with a prohibitively tall brick wall. Only family members in possession of a special key can enter this rarified space where the likes of Mary Pickford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Humphrey Bogart are interred. It’s a vast and lavish area of the cemetery surrounded with glittering marble statues and elaborate sarcophaguses.
But for now, sources tell me, Michael Jackson will be stored in a crypt almost directly underneath the Last Supper masterpiece.
To get to that spot my guide showed me a wide marble staircase, roped off to keep the public out, but clearly visible as going down. The first sunken level is where it’s expected Jackson will be held. Standing at the top of these stairs is like standing on the top floor of an apartment building and being able to see all the levels of staircases. It has an eerie feeling to it and, according to multiple sources, this is the route to the secret underground catacombs.
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Michael Through the Years
Michael Jackson will lie in repose over no fewer than 13 subterranean floors, each holding intriguing secrets, some could date as far back to the late 1800’s. As one cemetery insider told me, ”It’s sort of the opposite of the stairway to heaven.”
When asked to confirm these areas a Forest Lawn spokesperson denied they exist.
But my sources, including another ex-Forest Lawn maintenance man and a mutual acquaintance of both employees to whom they gave contemporaneous accounts over the years, give descriptions that are rich with detail.
“There is a level where devil worshippers were once interred,” my guide tells me. “It’s complete with devil statues, pentagrams and an area where worshippers conducted weird services.”
Continuing down there is another level said to be dedicated to some of Los Angeles’ original and very wealthy industrialists and their families. They rest down behind ancient hardcore steel gates off to each side of a long main corridor. These are the departed rich who wanted to spend eternity away from the prying eyes of common citizens. Families with names like Williamson and Wilkinson and Miller. According to my sources, the Miller family, of Miller beer, has ancestors interred in these underground spaces.
Another subterranean area, according to the guide, was set aside as the final spot for wealthy gypsy families, the figurines on their crypts otherworldly, and as recently as the 1960s, my sources say, their families would stage elaborate get-togethers to honor their dead relatives.
Many doors remain padlocked deep within this labyrinth but when two workers opened one they discovered a room lined with shelves holding crematory urns for military men, police officers, nurses and city workers who were cremated gratis and held all these years because there were no families to claim them.
Both men told me when their duties required them to be in these underground spaces they often felt the eerie presence of some of the forgotten occupants.
“I’m not a supernatural, ghost-y kind of guy,” the guide told me as we continued our tour, “but more than once when I was down in those places I felt cold and clammy fingers brush against the back of my neck. I knew I was alone down there – but I wasn’t really alone, you know?”
Sounds like a real life Thriller location -- and one whose history would likely delight Michael Jackson.
Investigative journalist and syndicated columnist Diane Dimond has covered the Michael Jackson story since 1993 when she first broke the news that the King of Pop was under investigation for child molestation. She is author of the book, " Be Careful Who You Love—Inside the Michael Jackson Case." She lives in New York with her husband, broadcast journalist, Michael Schoen.